Culture Warrior

“If Michael Bay directed Raiders, the Ark would be opened in the first act, and people’s heads would explode through the rest of the film.”

I don’t typically seek out wisdom from Twitter, but this below-140-character observation (made by @krishnasjenoi and retweeted by @ebertchicago) struck very close to something that’s been occupying my mind as we enter the fifth week of the summer movie season. Though the statement works better as a fun hypothetical critique than a contestable thesis (in other words, there’s no way we’ll ever really know, thank goodness), the sentiment feels relevant. Though the modern Hollywood blockbuster has been a staple of studios’ summer scheduling for almost forty years, the films that become blockbusters don’t look or feel very similar to the films of the 70s and 80s that somehow paradoxically led to today’s cavalcade of sequels, franchises, adaptations and remakes.

Criticizing Hollywood’s creative crisis is nothing new. But with the mega-success of The Avengers and the continuing narrative of failure and disappointment that has thus far characterizes every major release since, it seems that this crisis has been put under a microscope. The moment where unprecedented success is the only kind of achievement Hollywood can afford and the well of decade-old franchises and toy companies become desperately mined for material is something we were warned about. But Hollywood’s creativity-crippling reliance on existing properties is not the only, or even the primary, problem faced by mass market filmmaking’s present moment.

The bloated numbers sought after each and every opening weekend are literalized by the blustering final acts of the modern Hollywood summer blockbuster.

Admittedly, The Avengers is a surprisingly good summer blockbuster, but the component of surprise is due largely to so many factors working against it. It’s easy to imagine a Hollywood film stuffed to the brim with superheroes whose final product feels both crowded and empty. But The Avengers is somehow more than the sum of its parts; the reason that many of its characters seem more appealing in The Avengers than they did in each of their individual franchise offshoots is because they’re rendered more interesting by their juxtaposition together than by their autonomy. For example, The Hulk is a scene-stealer because he shares the screen with other figures that he can steal scenes from, and Loki is a more dynamic villain because a variety of opponents provides him a variety of challenges.

Now, take a look at the film’s final act, the climactic NYC-set showdown between the Avengers and Loki’s extraterrestrial army. Each individual character is given an adequate amount of shared screen time. While this bombastic sequence is enjoyable and perhaps even narratively justified by Tony Stark’s hubristic tower (though this plot point is more a MacGuffin-style means rather than an end when we’re dealing with a movie about a bunch of cool superheroes hanging out), the film’s final act feels more like well-balanced juggling between an almost overwhelming variety of crisis scenarios than an action scene featuring anything remotely resembling cogent stakes and earned suspense. After much ado about noise, Loki’s colorful smashing and Iron Man’s sacrifice-in-disguise felt more like a adequately distracting whimper than a well-earned bang, especially in comparison to the film’s much more masterfully handled Helicarrier crash sequence an hour before.

That the final act of The Avengers so closely resembles the (admittedly messier) final act of last year’s third Transformers film is no coincidence. With giant budgets seeking giant residuals, Hollywood studios seem like they’re only able to imagine giant stakes in the most obvious ways, as if today’s audiences can’t possibly imagine danger and consequence unless it’s demonstrated by the prolonged decimation of a major American city. Peter Berg’s Battleship is little more than this propensity for mammoth, disorienting third acts stretched out to feature length.

Compare these three films with one of the major precedents of the modern Hollywood blockbuster, the aforementioned Raiders of the Lost Ark. The climactic moment of this beloved film does not feature a forty-minute destruction of a city or a terribly loud battle on the high seas. The third act of Raiders takes place in a crevasse and features the following population of characters: Indiana Jones, Marion, Belloq, Toht, and a handful of Nazis, most of whom we’ve spent a significant amount of time with leading up to this moment in the film.

 

The stakes in the ending of Raiders are exactly the same as the stakes that paint the final act of The Avengers: if the bad guy achieves his goal, the world as we know it will meet total ruin. But Spielberg, Lucas, Kasdan, etc. didn’t think that we needed to see numerous faces of dozens of people to understand the weight of the circumstances at play. We are merely kept in this enclosed space with these select characters as we witness the world threatened and saved with carefully executed suspense and a well-earned, literally face-melting final spectacle (especially when contrasted to the crowded final act – or the overstuffed entirety, rather – of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

Raiders of the Lost Ark Face Melt

Sadly, contemporary filmmakers’ inability to orchestrate a third act that adequately earns what a film has thus far built itself up to characterizes the “good” franchises as well. As much as I adore Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight suffer from a bloated final conflict. With Batman Begins, the problem lies with its sudden and rather graceless introduction of the “microwave emitter” which inaugurates a disjointed rundown to its ending and nearly obscures all the elegant and patient world-building that came before.

I originally credited my dissatisfaction with the closing block of Nolan’s first Batman film with the difficulty that origin stories typically experience creating complex and interesting villains, but The Dark Knight’s rather indelicate balancing between a ship full of innocents, a skyscraper full of hostages, and a rampaging Harvey Dent wasn’t much of an improvement. By contrast, the climactic act of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman does threaten the citizens of Gotham with Jack Nicholson’s Joker’s carnivalesque parade, but the film then narrows its conflict to a two-man showdown between the film’s two primary characters and a small handful of generic baddies on the side. This mano-y-mano cat-and-mouse game more closely resembles the one-on-one final conflict of The Empire Strikes Back than anything that characterizes recent Hollywood.

Blockbusters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight suffer from a Civilian Problem. Why do these huge studio films insist on using hundreds of ostensibly ‘innocent,’ generic, blank-faced civilians to gain our sympathies rather than simply utilizing the characters they’ve already taken the time and effort to develop? Nolan’s lack of finesse in ending his Batman films is surprising and a little frustrating given his talent for structure demonstrated in Inception and Memento. I can only hope that the third component in this trilogy isn’t itself a giant, hapless final act.

Hollywood’s current crisis, then, has not resulted because it’s impossible for a film to be original if it’s an adaptation of an existing enterprise – such practice has actually characterized most of Hollywood’s history. And it’s not that undoing an iconic city can’t make for an awesome final conflict. The problem is that filmmakers and studios don’t necessarily act upon opportunities for creative intervention that these types of films provide.

A major contributor to this problem is Hollywood’s confusion of action with spectacle. Anything from The Avengers to Battleship may give plenty of stimuli to our eyes and ears, but is a city falling apart really a scene whose action (i.e., the particular interrelation of thrilling events) is appealing, or is it the spectacle of special effects that only big-money-mayhem can deliver? Digital filmmaking has proved itself to be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it allows unprecedented opportunity, and on the other, its lack of limitation can be an impediment to creative invention.

Contemporary Hollywood cinema has become remarkably good at starting stories. With so many superhero origin stories, prequels, and franchise reboots that start at square one, studios knows how to hook audiences in with an old version of the new. If only Hollywood could be more adept at the follow-through.

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