The other day I found myself stuck in a waiting room and one of the Marvel Disney movies was playing on the wall TV. I think it was Thor: Ragnarok, which I’d hitherto successfully avoided. As I watched the nearly soundless images flicker by (the volume was low and people were talking over it), several things stood out that reminded me why I hate modern films in general and Disney’s ones in particular.
Nothing Makes Sense
In a far off and distant time, there was a thing called “the willful suspension of disbelief” that governed fiction writing. It allowed flights of fancy – such as distant worlds, supernatural powers, and such, but required these extraordinary things to be balanced with ordinary ones. Otherwise, the whole exercise becomes pointless.
Examples of this abound. The reason Aliens is such a great movie is that the characters are so real. Yes, it’s in space on a planet populated with deadly “xenomorphs,” but their motivations and actions are entirely consistent with observable human behavior. The aliens themselves are formidable foes, but they are also recognizably bound by the laws of physics. The film does take a few liberties by assuming that a woman can carry a full combat load as easily as a man (she couldn’t), but at least Private Vasquez looks the part.
These days, everything is fake. You see women (and frequently men) who perform great feats of strength and physical prowess with little (if any) apparent musculature. The power is just somehow within them. Whereas Luke Skywalker spent the bulk of The Empire Strikes Back enduring grueling training to be a Jedi and still got his butt kicked by a man old enough to be his dad (heh), Rey merely needed to hold a lightsaber in order to be a world class duelist. This was because she was an Empowered Woman which means the writers can do whatever they want without explaining how or why, you sexist.
I know, the training montage was its own trope, but a necessary one to remind people of the passage of time and effort necessary for successful endeavors. This also shows the hero’s commitment to a cause and makes them relatable. Thus, even on a planet with a single ecosystem, we are still bound by a relatable reality. Having a character simply show up and dominate with a weapon she’s never seen before (let alone used) makes zero sense.
Bigger, Longer Fights = Less Dramatic Tension
In order to create interest – drama, if you will – there has to be a source of tension. This often comes from the proximity to physical danger. Here again we turn to Aliens and Star Wars. In Aliens, we quickly learn that there may be no such thing as script immunity. Usually in films of this sort, one expects the extras to die and a few characters as well, but not the entire team. The Star Wars trilogy likewise had the guts to take out the biggest name in the first film. (I am referring of course to Sir Alec Guinness who also was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in that role.)
Sure, he came back as a ghost, but no one knew that would happen at the time. It was shocking. The subsequent films built on this by having everyone but Chewbacca and Lando get shot, dismembered, frozen or maimed. Most importantly, their behavior changed after these experiences. Even in a universe with laser swords and cute, highly marketable, sentient teddy bears people behaved in a realistic manner.
In today’s films, that tension is gone. You can pretty much tell from the get-go what will happen in any fight scene and if you’re wrong, it’s likely because the writers decided to “subvert expectations” by making the result random. There’s also a bizarre sort of one-upmanship in terms of the outrageously unrealistic damage the combatants can inflict on each other without there being any discernible result. Man of Steel was particularly bad in this respect, with Superman and his fellow Krypton refugees hurling each other through buildings without doing any harm to each other. One would think they’d know this was pointless, but one would be wrong.
Not only do the battles produce little actual damage to the combatants, they waste a lot of time. When one of them finally is hurt or stunned, an honest observer would have to ask why that particular blow produced a result when all the other ones didn’t.
Saving the Universe Yet Again
I have a certain fondness for Chronicles of Riddick because when told that the Necromongers are going to destroy the known universe, Riddick’s reaction mirrors mine: “Had to end sometime.”
That’s the fundamental weakness with all of these films. You reach a point where New York’s been bashed and smashed so many times that one can’t help but wonder if the common folk are ready for the thing just to end already. (I’m sure Tokyo feels the same way about Godzilla.)
Obviously, the reason for this is to engage the audience and give some sort of reason for the unceasing CGI violence. The thing is, sometimes stories with smaller stakes are much more interesting. The Crow, for example, is a story one man’s loss, revenge and redemption and it’s great. Tellingly, when Deadpool used the same basic storyline, it had none of the emotional impact.
The paradox is that writing about small things is a lot more difficult than “saving the world,” which is why those movies have vanished from pop culture.
The Curse of CGI
If one were to draw a Venn diagram showing fans of MCU movies and White Nights, the overlap would require intense magnification to identify. Still, on the off chance that any of you have seen the film, the simulated crash of the 747 at the start of the movie was not done digitally but instead required an actual plane on a RAF airfield and they had one chance to get it right.
If you wanted a big crowd scene, you had to pay for a big crowd and doing that took lots of time, money and therefore planning. You couldn’t just ask some dudes to whip it up for you on an iMac.
What this meant was that spectacles were much more important to the story and had to be used sparingly and carefully. As with the 747, they often had one take and this added to the dramatic punch of it.
With CGI, I bet one can crash fleets of 747 into dozens of airfields for less money than that stunt cost in constant (inflation-adjusted) dollars. When everything is lavish and over the top, nothing is, which is why I can’t think of a single CGI battle that carries the same sense of urgency, violence and scale that accompanies the 1/9 Cavalry’s air assault in Apocalypse Now. Certainly, none of them has comparable dialog.
The Mouse’s Hollow Shell
This goes beyond the MCU. The live-action remakes of classic cartoons are nothing more than money grabs, and – in the case of Mulan – Chi-com influenced garbage. Like everyone else, they are strip-mining the back catalog for origin stories about 70-year-old cartoon villains.
Even in the 80s, Disney was reeling from a decade of mediocre Herbie the Love Bug movies, they still had strikingly original ideas. Tron completely anticipated the notion of a second online existence. Its sequel didn’t measure up, but at least it had a great soundtrack. Heck, The Black Hole is weird and creepy, but it’s a damn sight more interesting than most of their stuff today.
Frozen had its moments and good song, but the heel-turn was badly executed and was clearly an afterthought. In earlier times it would have been better edited. It is also getting strip-mined. Don’t even get me started on Star Wars.
Going Old School
The only good news is that it’s never been cheaper or easier to collect cheap copies of older films. Even the grocery stores are selling four-disk collections for less than $10. That’s about what it would have cost to rent them, so it’s a low-risk way to find something you might have overlooked.
Right now, I’m working through a compilation of Charles Bronson’s tough guy films from the 70s. They are a hoot. That’s the flip side of this mouse-driven creative desert – it gives us chance to find some hidden gems we otherwise might have missed. Not only that, we can give the censorship-obsessed streaming oligarchs the middle finger with our physical media on standalone un-wired DVD players.
It’s a win-win scenario: you get better content while starving the ravenous bloated Mouse.