Epic Movies, Raised Stakes, & THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
'Epic' stories are killing movies today.
Happy New Year, CBM users! In SauronsBANE1's latest editorial and 1st of 2014, find out why 'end-of-the-world' movies are quickly becoming tiresome and ineffective, why Peter Jackson's latest epic trilogy is proof positive of this worrisome trend, and why this is hurting the comic book movie genre overall.
In terms of comic book movies like Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel, and Thor: The Dark World to name just a few, it seems that nowadays the only way to successfully market them to audiences is to put together trailers and clips that show off huge CGI-filled fights and include plenty of dark, grim monologues about how a major city will be destroyed. Or the country will be taken over. Or the entire world will end, if the main characters fail.
Okay, big deal, right? Maybe that can simply be chalked up to the whims of the advertising and marketing divisions for those specific films...but then why are there so few genuinely great movies anywhere that happen to have smaller, more focused, and more compelling threats? Or if there absolutely must be epic, world-ending stakes, why do so few of these blockbusters actually make the conflicts personal for the heroes?
The Problem with "Epic"
I'm sure many of you may be thinking, "I don't see anything wrong with having world-threatening stakes."
And to be perfectly honest...you’d be completely right. Nothing is inherently wrong with big threats and high stakes in a movie.
In fact, raising the stakes is actually a very crucial aspect of keeping audiences emotionally invested in the characters, their journey, and their eventual fates. If there aren't any stakes, if the main characters can keep overcoming problem after problem with no consequences and no risks, if nothing ever seems to negatively impact them...then what's the point in watching at all? Why should we even be remotely interested in what happens to them?
So with that in mind, let's establish right from the get-go that that's not what my complaint is about. High stakes alone aren't the issue here.
It has to do with what the focus is about. The problem really comes when end-of-the-world threats are all that a movie has to offer. When the entire story, the action sequences, and character decisions constantly revolve around and are only influenced by some huge threat...beware. This is a major red flag that a movie is walking on the wrong side of a very fine line.
Personally, I look at these following movies as examples of blockbusters that get a bit too wrapped up in their 'epicness' and forget to offer much of anything else: 2012, The Matrix Revolutions, the Transformers films, Pacific Rim (although it can definitely be argued that this is exactly the point of it), some of the older and cheesier James Bond films, Star Trek Into Darkness, and, yes, Man of Steel.
As I said before, the key is making the threats personal. So of course, not every movie that deals with these epic threats turns out to be terrible at all.
The original Lord of the Rings trilogy has an epic and far-reaching threat, and it still manages to focus on the characters, their personal struggles, and their character arcs. Those movies are absolutely thrilling and very well-structured. The original Star Wars trilogy doesn't suffer from its high stakes, and neither does The Avengers, or Thor 2 (for the most part), or even the first Matrix film.
So what makes these films different? What are the similarities with each of these films that are generally accepted to be great? Characters. Arcs. Motivations. Drama. Conflict. These movies focus more on characters and how they react to the problems and issues they have to face and then overcome, while just so happening to have very real, very big threats looming as a constant, ever-present threat in the background.
But why am I going on and on about making threats personal, you ask? Why is this such a big deal?
The thing about personalizing the threats in a movie is that it allows us to explore and witness the flaws in the main characters, their strengths, and how they develop and change as a result of the plot of the film. Boring, generic, all-encompassing threats rob us of the potential of seeing the different, complex sides of their personalities and the incredibly important details of what makes our favorite characters really tick. Fully-developed, fully-realized, fully-humanized characters are the backbones of any great movie.
In The Lord of the Rings, we get to see Aragorn deal with personal issues of unworthiness and unease at reclaiming the rightful throne of Gondor, Legolas and Gimli put aside a centuries-old feud between races and learn to become true friends, Merry and Pippin both discover their courage and what they're capable of, and Frodo and Sam learn to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds, and also trust and depend on each other on a very intimate, "bro-mantic" level. The Avengers is all about the relationships between the superheroes. Despite Malekith not posing a very personal threat at all to Thor, he continues to deal with the tricky, mischievous ways of his scene-stealing brother Loki. And Luke Skywalker, of course, has to go on an incredible journey that culminates with a face-off with his long-lost father.
Compare that approach to the movies in the other list, which seem to revolve solely around the epic threats the characters face. Unfortunately, the high stakes are priority number one and everything else follows almost as an afterthought. Endless pretentious monologues about "destiny" and the end of the world give illusions of character development while action scenes take place simply for the sake of having action scenes, not because they advance the plot. It's almost like the only way they know how to build up the intensity and drama in any situation is by increasing the scale of the potential devastation.
But why is this? Why is it that so many filmmakers figure the best way to attract fans is to keep raising the scale of the threat until the city, the country, the planet, or even the entire universe is at risk? Is this really the only way to hold our interest in movies now? Isn't that getting tiring and more cliché to be subjected to over and over again?
Maybe it's because those aspects simply make for incredibly thrilling trailers, and that leads to more people shelling out cash to see it in theaters...only to be let down 9 times out of 10. Maybe those kinds of movies are relatively easy and cheap to make, and Hollywood knows people will eat those 'epic' movies up like sheep.
I don't know if there is one single answer to that, but I do know that this growing trend is leading to less and less well-made movies.
In addition to sacrificing character development and motivation, an increased focus solely on the stakes of a story also makes movies more boring and generic. Sure, these types of films almost always include large-scale battles, thrilling fights, and plenty of edge-of-your-seat action sequences to keep any adrenaline-junkie occupied for the next 2 hours.
But aren't movies made up of more than just action? Do any of these action-heavy sequences ever really stand out from any other generic, easily-forgettable summer blockbusters? Do these movies ever end up standing the test of time?
This brings us to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which I consider to be the most recent and most applicable example of the tendency to shoehorn almost every comic book, action, or fantasy movie into this sweeping, epic, needlessly drawn-out ride.
Before I go any further, let me just say that this particular movie actually is filled with a few great character moments and developments (unsurprisingly, these moments almost always take place in the few scenes that heavily involve Bilbo) and that easily lifts this above your typical, mindless summer blockbuster.
But this becomes outweighed when you consider that it's just so painfully apparent this movie relies very heavily on its action, action, and more action in order to get by on its almost 3 hour runtime.
On a related note, one of the more damning things about the Hobbit movies is that they just don't seem to know what kind of film they want to be, tone-wise. On one hand, these movies sacrifice the real-world physics and the relative realism that was so prevalent in the original trilogy in favor of a more computer-generated, video game aesthetic. Why? Because they are made with kids in mind, and this allows for more silly and fantastical things to occur. But conversely, the filmmakers are trying to connect with the largely older audience who loved the original Lord of the Rings, and so countless references are thrown at us, "prequel-itis" sets in, and the stakes are raised significantly until it's not a story about going "there and back again" anymore. It becomes a much more convoluted, bloated mess. Is it a kids movie about a simple adventure, or is it a sweeping, dark epic that explains how everything came to be in The Lord of the Rings? Unfortunately, not even the filmmakers seem to know.
It shouldn't be surprising that all of this is a direct result of director Peter Jackson's decision to branch out, forcefully connect this prequel trilogy with the original one, and turn this simple adventure story into yet another all-out epic fantasy trilogy with plenty of end-of-the-world threats and ridiculously high stakes.
But perhaps the most glaring consequence of Jackson's approach is something that I briefly touched upon earlier: characters are shoved aside and more or less forgotten about in order to focus more on the bigger threat. In this case, it's not just any character. It's the main one, Bilbo Baggins.
It's almost comical to me that a movie called "The Hobbit" could so easily and so haphazardly cast away and almost forget about its titular hero in order to worry about more 'important' things. For crying out loud, Jackson and his writers consistently give supporting characters like Legolas and Tauriel more stuff to do in this film than the person who's supposed to be the main character. Bilbo is relegated to mostly staying in the background until key moments suddenly pop up out of nowhere, where he randomly reappears and ends up contributing the most in order to get out of whatever problem the Company finds themselves in. This wouldn't be so bad if it didn't keep reminding the audience that, except for those few scenes, Bilbo's largely been MIA. Don't get me wrong, the pleasure of watching Martin Freeman portray Bilbo again so wonderfully in any scene, regardless of how involved he is, is fantastic...but it doesn't make the problem go away. It happens on more than one occasion, and it's just so jarring.
On the other hand, just look at arguably the most well-received scenes in each Hobbit movie so far: Bilbo's riddle game with Gollum, and Bilbo's face-off with Smaug. Both scenes give the main character a chance to shine, show off his wit and cleverness, and drive the plot forward. (Is it any surprise that these also happen to be the two scenes that lift most of the dialogue and plot straight from the book? But I digress...)
But what’s jarring about both of these instances comes from the fact that we never see any other examples again of Bilbo being very clever or smart, which is a hugely defining characteristic of the Hobbit in the book. Again, the only time we ever see Bilbo using his wits to get by sticky situations is in the two scenes that initially play out closest to what J.R.R. Tolkien wrote. As a result, you can feel the quality of the writing of the script dramatically increase in these two scenes, and then suddenly descend back to the uninspired norm again in every other scene. Bilbo suddenly starts talking in riddles, flattering language, and very smart dialogue...but we barely ever see these qualities in the rest of either movie, if at all.
That's not to say he isn't essential to the plot of the movies; he absolutely is, but he's just not shown to be very intelligent or clever in other situations. Sure, Bilbo saves his friends from the terrifically creepy spiders, but that's only through brute force, not brains. And even then, he takes a very long, stupid, selfish timeout from rescuing his friends while they have to fend off more spiders so that Jackson can beat us over the head with more blatant, in-your-face references to the Ring having an evil nature. And sure, Bilbo frees them from the Wood-elves, but even this ridiculously lucky plan is rushed and glossed over in a matter of a minute or two.
The reason more time isn't spent with Bilbo is because there's just so much other unnecessary stuff going on: Azog continues to hunt the Company (until barely 5 minutes into the movie, out of nowhere, he's summoned to Dol Guldur for some reason, drops the entire chase, and randomly sends his son Bolg to pick up the slack for the rest of the film. What...?), Gandalf investigates the Ringwraith tombs (whose history, I guess, has been retroactively rewritten now? I mean, in the very first film Aragorn tells Frodo that Ringwraiths are servants of the Enemy and they are neither living nor dead, but now apparently they've died sometime in the past, been placed in tombs, woken up and broke out of them? Okay.) and idiotically barges into the fortress of Dol Guldur all by himself (but not before we're shown Peter Jackson's versions of a Middle-earth long-distance call: Radaghast somehow teleporting to Gandalf's location in the tombs and, much more annoyingly, another telepathic conversation with Galadriel. Because we totally haven't seen THAT done to death in these films before...), Gandalf's Harry Potter-esque fight with the Necromancer (and honestly, the fact that Peter Jackson seems to think that the Eye of Sauron is literally an eye and he felt it needed some type of back-story to be explained is just...well, it shows a major misunderstanding of Tolkien's books), Kili and Tauriel wasting precious screentime with a pointless love triangle, Thorin cold-heartedly and unheroically splitting up his own Company and leaving behind his own nephews in Lake-town, Legolas and Tauriel following the Company there and getting into a prolonged and attention-stealing fight with the Orcs, etc.
And what do all these needless plethora of subplots and bloated details have to do with? You guessed it: driving up the stakes, increasing the scale of the danger, and generally giving the movie that forced 'epic' feel.
Even a few admittedly minor quibbles of mine manage to make things even worse, purely as a result of the vast amount of times the movie resorts to overusing this one specific thing. What am I talking about? Well, the movie goes out of its way to reference, call attention to, and essentially beat us over the head with an avalanche of little winks and nods to the previous trilogy. Aside from hoping that audiences would automatically like this trilogy simply because there's a number of references and allusions to the original one, this is another wishful attempt to give it that ‘epic’ quality.
From Tauriel casually slipping in the Elvish word for friend, “mellon,” into a conversation with Legolas, to Bolg and his Orcs reenacting a few odd, weirdly specific moments from The Two Towers, to Legolas and the Wood-elves surprising the Dwarves in exactly the same manner that the Lothlorien Elves first encounter the Fellowship, to the Master of Lake-town's evil sidekick who looks, acts like, and basically plays exactly the same role as Grima Wormtongue, to Tauriel completely ripping off and rehashing the scene where Arwen tries to heal Frodo with the athelas weed, to the hidden entrance of the Lonely Mountain evoking the hidden doorway to the Mines of Moria by only reacting to moonlight, to the huge Dwarven statues by the hidden entrance into the Lonely Mountain referencing the large Argonath statues from The Fellowship of the Ring...some might think these examples are a bit of a stretch, but it's undeniable that this movie is completely unable to stand on its own two feet without constantly leaning on Jackson’s previous successes as a crutch.
But what is it with trilogies these days anyway, where they stick to this boring, cliché, predictable formula of having the 1st movie usually be involved with the smallest, most personal threat, the 2nd installment dealing with a marginally larger threat, and the 3rd inevitably succumbing to the whole end-of-the-world disaster trope? The Hobbit is probably Exhibit A of this, and if you don't believe me, just wait till you see what events the third movie will deal with.
In a way, I actually somewhat enjoy the 1st film (even though film-wise, it's definitely much less cohesive, more bloated, and an overall lesser quality of movie) precisely because it mostly stays with Bilbo's journey and only hints at all the other unnecessary stuff by keeping it to the outside. It is the more focused, more personal of the two movies so far.
In my opinion, what both Hobbit movies have been doing so wrong is that they keep trying to up the ante and raise the stakes for nearly everything, rather than paying more attention to the main characters. Bear with me as we take a look at some examples from each film in this trilogy so far:
-Going on a simple quest to vanquish a dragon and win back the Dwarves' rightful gold isn't big enough? Make it a quest to reclaim their entire homeland!
-The constant dangers of Trolls, Goblins, Spiders, and a freaking Dragon at the end isn't enough? Bring Azog back from the dead for a lame, cheesy 'revenge' motivation, have him hunt the Company, and be a complete rehash and ripoff of the Uruk-hai Lurtz from The Fellowship of the Ring!
-Climbing through a precarious mountain pass before getting captured by Goblins isn't dangerous enough? Have them go through death-defying carnival rides, in a pointless action sequence that doesn't advance the plot at all, in between Stone-giants that appear to be wrestling for some reason, and then miraculously make it through without so much as a scratch!
-Escaping from Goblins isn't exciting enough? Turn it into a video game that ignores physics where inexperienced Dwarves actually block arrows with the tips of their swords, where everything is turned into a sort of Rube Goldberg machine, where our heroes can ride down steep cliffs on flimsy scaffolding hundreds of feet down without any repercussions!
-Getting chased by Orcs up into trees in a forest? Make it a forest that ends dramatically in a giant cliff, make the trees fall into each other like dominoes until the last one is hanging over the cliff, make Thorin completely forsake his friends so he can have one last slo-mo, cheesy, anticlimactic grudge match with Azog, then inexplicably have Thorin go down immediately and in the lamest way possible so Bilbo can have a shoehorned "hero moment" that doesn't end up mattering one bit, because the Eagles magically show up out of nowhere once again to save them in the nick of time!
-Traveling to the house of Beorn, the huge shape-shifting Bear-Man who may or may not play a crucial role in upcoming events, isn't compelling enough? Have him chase them there himself for no reason, and then completely drop the character after 2 minutes in what amounts as a rushed, pointless cameo at best!
-Escaping from Wood-elves isn't enough? Turn it into a raging river rapids amusement park ride, with Orcs and Elves and Dwarves battling each other, with Legolas and Tauriel, who can actually shoot other arrows right out of the air and nimbly jump on top of Dwarves all while performing elaborate kill moves, doing any ridiculous, death-defying stunt, showing off ninja or even superhero-level abilities that would feel right at home in a fight with Zod in Man of Steel, with the barrel that contains the fat Dwarf Bombur (who, along with the majority of the Dwarves not named Thorin, Dwalin, Balin, and now Kili, hasn't had a single speaking line yet, much less any other type of characterization) knocking into Orcs like a bowling ball in one of the more implausible, jump-the-shark moments in this trilogy so far!
-Giving Bilbo a face-off with Smaug and then having him fly away to Lake-town to unleash his fury upon them isn't climactic enough? Turn the entire 3rd act into an overlong clusterf*ck of Dwarves running willy-nilly inside the mountain, barely avoiding dragonfire...
You know what, let's stop for a second. This sequence deserves some looking into.
...What the heck is even going on here?
When do the Dwarves even have time to concoct such a piss-poor plan that involves lighting random furnaces ("The plan won't work, the forges are stone-cold!" one Dwarf suddenly exclaims when they arrive, apparently surprised at the fact that Smaug didn't keep Dwarf forges hot and running in the few decades that's passed since he took over Erebor...) furnaces that apparently only exist to build one specific Dwarf statue which we see later, a statue that inexplicably and idiotically renders Smaug into a mesmerized, frozen, unmoving lizard at the mere sight of it, which conveniently gives it just enough time to melt and spray molten gold at him in the hopes of killing him. Only it doesn't, somewhat predictably, because it had very little chance of doing so anyway.
You can almost see the parts of the script that were hastily re-written and haphazardly added in once the decision was made to turn this from two movies into three, and this absolute mess of a third act is living proof of it. But let's get on with this, shall we?
-Dwarves literally fly through the air and one even lands on top of Smaug's freaking snout, where all he needs to do is open his mouth and kill the utterly unlikable Thorin, where Smaug really just needs to blast fire one more time or take another step or two in countless other instances in order to kill our heroes...but for some reason he conveniently doesn't do that. And for all the talk about how he can smell Bilbo and he knows the taste and smell of Dwarves better than anyone, he still somehow manages to remain completely oblivious as to their whereabouts several times over, even when he's right next to them, or right above them! Seriously, as great as he sounds and as awesomely scary as he looks, thanks to the terrible writing, he will probably go down as one of the most unintentionally incompetent villains of all time.
Ugh. I have to apologize. I definitely wasn't planning on going on a bit of a rant there about the over-indulgences and absolutely ridiculous, so-called 'epic' moments in Jackson's trilogy so far, but hopefully I made my point.
Lessons from Skyfall
Even though financially successful movies like The Hobbit have the potential to negatively influence how other movies are made, especially our favorite films based on comics, there's a few solid templates out there that do get it right.
For example, Argo, The Wolverine, Gravity, and Iron Man 3 all have varying levels of destruction and stakes to them, but they all prioritize making the conflicts personal for the protagonists.
Despite not being a comic book movie, the methods and strategies used in this one film would absolutely benefit upcoming comic book blockbusters. The film I'm referring to is Skyfall, which just might be the exact opposite of The Hobbit in almost every aspect. Plenty of complaints were raised about how it suddenly turned into the Home Alone of James Bond films at the end, but I argue that this is part of what really makes this movie special.
Think about it.
It starts with your prototypical, huge, all-encompassing threat as Bond is trying to track down the stolen hard drive that contains the identities of agents embedded in terrorist organizations around the world. But as the story progresses this aspect of the plot is dropped in favor of focusing more on the main villain, Raoul Silva, who just so happens to be a very intimate, very personal threat to both Bond and M. By the 3rd act of the movie, this personal threat is physically represented by Bond taking M to his childhood estate and fending off Silva's attack from there.
Despite the criticisms, I found this to be deliciously counter to what most Bond films (and most other big blockbusters these days) usually do. On the contrary, it took this cheesy, played-out cliché of steadily building up the stakes to crazy levels and flipped it completely on its head. It starts out with the huge, agency-at-risk threat and ends with Bond, M, and Kincade defending against a simple, personal assault by Silva and his men.
And somehow the entire climactic battle still manages to be intense, compelling, and thrilling. As a matter of fact, all the action sequences in this movie have a point to it; there isn't any part that feels unnecessary or exists simply for the sake of existing.
Compare that to the 'battle' in Smaug's lair with the Dwarves, where a good 10-20 minutes of screentime is taken up by a fruitless, pointless action sequence that only delays the inevitable: no matter what happens, Smaug is going to attack Lake-town at some point. Even if you haven't read the book, the movie heavily foreshadows this in several not-so-subtle ways. So what's the point of the entire climax of the movie? Not only does it not drive the plot forward, it completely stops the pacing and plot of the movie dead in its tracks, making the film feel even longer than it is.
Future filmmakers can learn a lesson or two from movies like Skyfall. When it comes to addressing the scale and size of the conflict in a story, no grand plans of world domination and destruction are needed here, no huge action set pieces just for the sake of having one...just good old-fashioned, simple, effective drama and conflict.
So I pose the question again: Why do movies almost always give in, retread old ground, and end with some battle that obligatorily decides the fate of the city, the world, or the universe itself? Wouldn't more movies, and comic book movies in particular, benefit from having some kind of story that focuses more on intensely personal and more small-scale conflicts?
Pixar movies have made a living out of getting rid of the stale, overused idea of large-scale threats and making the conflicts very personal to the main characters, and it's undeniable how commercially and critically successful those movies are.
The first two movies of The Dark Knight trilogy went from Ra's al Ghul threatening the entire city to the Joker leading Batman on a cat-and-mouse game throughout the streets of Gotham. Sure, he's still a massive threat to the city, but he's also a majorly personal threat to Batman, what he stands for, and what his limits are. And it seems that The Avengers and its sequel will be following that same successful strategy.
Undoubtedly, The Hobbit trilogy would have been miles better had it only hinted at, or completely dropped, the constant threats that the Necromancer, the Ringwraiths, and the armies in the fortress of Dol Guldur will eventually pose for the rest of the world. Instead, imagine if it had only been about a much tighter, more focused story that was actually about the Hobbit, his journey, and his character arc of turning from a home-loving, reluctant adventurer into a courageous, respectable leader.
Maybe someday us fans will stop settling for the boring, predictable movies that always desperately try to keep raising the stakes because they have nothing else to offer. Maybe those large-scale and global threats would be better suited as the finales of a franchise, like the Justice League or the Avengers, after putting in the necessary amount of work and time in order for the payoff to actually seem worth it. Maybe we'll get to the point where the big, epic, potentially world-ending blockbusters will actually be the destination, rather than the starting point.
Maybe filmmakers will realize that less usually means more, and that these constant barrages of "epic" movies are killing most movies today.
As always, thanks for reading! Agree 100%, or completely disagree? Sound off in the comments below!
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