Bad Villains Make For Bad Heroes

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“A protagonist and his [or her] story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them” – Robert McKee in ‘Story’.

If you’re someone who generally enjoys superhero TV shows and movies, like me, then chances are you were at least mildly excited to watch Marvel’s latest superhero series, ‘The Defenders’. But, if you’ve seen it then it’s also likely that you, like me, are deeply underwhelmed by it. Or, at least, feel like it could have been a lot better.  It seems to follow in the time-honoured tradition of Marvel outings that are good enough to watch but never good enough to seriously leave a mark. Visual spectacles that promise something profound and settle for passable instead.

But rather than just brand ‘Defenders’ as “bad” or “average”, I’d like to try and figure out why it’s not as good as it definitely could be. And while there are many things about it that I think could be improved upon, in this piece, I’m going to argue that they all stem from one central flaw: bad villains. Not bad as in evil, but bad as in… why do you even exist? And I’m going to compare these flaws to what is generally considered the best superhero work on-screen in the modern era: Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’, as a means of highlighting why I think ‘The Defenders’ falls short.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Before I get into what makes a poor villain, I first want to talk about what makes a good one.

“Create an opponent… who is exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness.” – John Truby.

The above is a piece of screenwriting advice from John Truby in his work, ‘The Anatomy of Story’. The idea being put forward is that well-crafted villain is one that is good in opposition to their particular hero… and by extension vice versa. ‘The Dark Knight’ is not your perfect movie – no such thing exists – but whether you love it or loathe it, there is one thing it gets spectacularly right: the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist. The Joker is a great villain but he is, more importantly, a great villain for Batman to face. He’d be terrible as the villain in ‘Moana’. A facetious example, I know, but it illustrates my point. Similarly, the character of the Joker isn’t going to fit in every superhero movie – Evidence A: The disaster that is Suicide Squad. You have to characterise him right. So why is the Joker a good villain in ‘The Dark Knight’?

Many reasons. Of course, Heath Ledger’s career-defining performance is one of them. But mostly, it comes back to one recurring idea: The Joker is great at pushing Batman into doing things he doesn’t want to do.

Batman has one rule, and anyone could tell you it: He doesn’t kill. What the Joker is great at in the film, is trying to make Batman break his rule.

For starters, unlike every other villain Batman ever faces, The Joker is not afraid of death. In fact, he constantly begs Batman to kill him.

“I want you to do it, I want you to do it, come on, hit me”, he mutters into the camera as Batman hurtles towards him on his high-powered Batcycle. Anyone else might run or hide but he stands defiantly… which forces Batman to swerve to avoid him and crash as a consequence.

He exploits the biggest weakness that Batman has – his morality – and uses it to make himself stronger while making Batman look weak and incapable of doing what he needs to do to protect the city.

The Joker causes increasing amounts of chaos and death (he’s robbing banks, killing people, blowing up buildings, taking over TV streams) and no matter what Batman does, he can’t seem to stop him. He arrests The Joker then beats him mercilessly. He threatens him, tries to force information out of him… none of it has any effect. Why? Because these are things that don’t bother The Joker. The Joker can’t be intimidated – he can’t be controlled with fear. He doesn’t care about being arrested because he’s already planned for that eventuality (and as we know, in any and every Batman story, he always escapes) and we’ve just established he’s not bothered about his life.

“You have nothing. Nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength…” he says, laughing in the face of Batman during the interrogation scene.

Joker

Gotham is a place governed by fear – a theme that the entirety of ‘Batman Begins’, the previous film in the trilogy, dedicates itself to establishing. Batman’s greatest strength is his ability to use that fear against his enemies. Batman is powerful, not just because of his physical prowess, but because he is a terrifying symbol for the villains of Gotham. Just the Batsignal in the sky is enough to stop a drug deal in a scene early on in the film.

The Joker takes all this away.

He presents him with seemingly only one option, one choice to make.

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choices to the character’s essential nature” – Robert Mckee

It is Batman’s insistence on finding a non-lethal solution as well as his faith in the people of Gotham that ultimately tell us who he is. It is what distinguishes him from The Joker or some ordinary vigilante. No one could really blame him for killing The Joker in the circumstances of the movie but he knows and we know that it would set a dangerous precedent and it’s a line he’s not willing to cross. It is this difficulty of choice that make us sympathise with him and his refusal to take the easy way out which makes us respect him more. We like Batman because no matter how hard he’s pushed, he still remains a good guy who’s true to his principals. Thus, the threat of The Joker enhances the character of Batman.

The Joker also helps Batman come to realisations about himself.  He shows him more about his own nature and his own limits.

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“Today I’ve found out what Batman can’t do. He can’t endure this”, he says to Alfred as they discuss the Joker’s threat that he will kill people every day until Batman reveals his true identity. Bruce decides to turn himself in and in doing so, realises that he’s not as infallible as he thought he was – he has weaknesses that he now sees clearly. We the viewer, in turn, are shown that, fundamentally, Batman is selfess and will sacrifice himself for Gotham (a theme that pays off again at the end of the film).

Finally, the characters of both The Joker and The Batman are dependent on each other.

Batman creates the Joker, albeit inadvertently. It is Batman’s oppressive form of justice – terrorising the villains of Gotham – that drives all the crime bosses to band together to try and find a solution…and it is during this underground meeting that The Joker arrives and gains their support. He claims that he can kill The Batman for them. They don’t trust him, but they feel they have no other option left to deal with Batman, so they give agree to his plan.

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In turn, The Joker’s existence makes Batman question himself and his resolve. By the end of the film, this resolve is strengthened because of The Joker and Batman is stronger for it. He has renewed hope for Gotham. Most importantly, it is the Joker’s actions that make Batman ‘The Dark Knight’ when he decides to take responsibility for Harvey Dent’s actions. He becomes, “Whatever Gotham needs [him] to be”. The Batman creates the Joker, who in turn moulds him into The Dark Knight – the anti-hero. Their relationship is symbiotic.

So, in quick summary: The Joker pushes the Batman to make tough choices, he’s good at exploiting his weaknesses, he helps him understand himself better and their relationship is symbiotic. This is why their battle feel so powerful.

Now remember these idea while we return to the original scope of the piece and compare this to ‘The Defenders’.

First of all, who is/are the villains of ‘The Defenders’? There’s two inter-related ones: The mysterious organisation known as ‘The Hand’ and the woman they have recently revived: Elektra Natchios.

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How does The Hand relate to each of the four heroes of ‘The Defenders’? Well, Danny is fighting an eternal battle against The Hand. Matt was raised by Stick to specifically become a member of the Chaste (an army to fight The Hand). Luke is concerned about the missing young men in Harlem (who are being manipulated by one of the Five Fingers of the Hand) and Jessica is pursuing a case that directly involves The Hand.

At the outset, we have plausible reasons for each of the four characters to be in opposition to The Hand. This is a good foundation. But, what does The Hand do beyond this point? The answer is… not a lot.

Once the four protagonists meet up and join forces (immediately and for quite tenuous reasons), they begin aimlessly battling The Hand in various interchangeable locations. What we’re never really told is this: What is the specific threat that The Hand brings? What is it that makes them a terrifying opposition for The Defenders to face?

If we go back to the quotes from Truby and McKee, The Hand should theoretically be good at exploiting the weaknesses of The Defenders. Well what are these weaknesses?

Luke’s is easy – he doesn’t like to use his strength. His moral compass is also too strong.

Matt – He’s conflicted on whether or not to continue being The Daredevil. He’s worried about the darkness that it brings out in him. His faith is also in opposition to his vigilantism.

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Jessica – She’s an alcoholic mess and doesn’t want to be involved in anything. She doesn’t trust anyone.

Danny – He’s… headstrong? Naïve? In need of family? I haven’t seen ‘The Iron Fist’ so perhaps it would be more apparent if I had.

But we have areas in which to attack each of the heroes and things to pressure them into exploring. Do we get any of it? Not really.

Is Jessica ever made to deeply mistrust the others? No. Are Luke and Matt ever shown the terrifying potential of their powers and how they might negatively impact those they care about? No. Is Danny ever exploited for being so innocent and bereft of nuance? A little bit.

The four of them are never really pushed to exploring the depths of their soul – either as a consequence of The Hand or in opposition to each other. They’re never really brought to a moral epiphany or personal insight, in the way that Batman is.

In a show with four completely different characters working together, you would think there would be moments when their relationship would be put to strain, particularly by an organisation as devious and insidious as the Hand is supposed to be.

Are the characters ever truly pushed apart? Are they ever really at odds? Does the Hand ever try to make them think that they have different goals, or even better, opposing goals?

Nope.

There are brief moments when conflicts bubble – Danny vs Luke over the boys in Harlem, Matt vs everyone because of lies about Elektra, Danny vs everyone when they want to keep him hidden. But none of these result in a serious conflict of any sort. Ultimately, they’re still on the same team, still continuing their norm. Their conflicts never affect the path of the story. What could be sticking points get passed over as temporary affairs.

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What we get in ‘The Defenders’ is something that is true of almost every ensemble superhero movie of recent times – a melding of individuality amongst the characters. It is as if coming together in the same room makes these four vastly different people all behave exactly alike. Or, more accurately, for everyone except Danny to behave exactly alike. The responses of Jessica, Luke and Matt to the threat of The Hand are all remarkably similar – initial shock/disbelief, followed by quick acceptance and then generic contempt throughout the rest of the show.

Though ‘The Immortal Iron Fist’ is, by most people’s account, the weakest of the four shows, it is Danny who shines most in ‘The Defenders’ because he actually retains his individuality. It is his naïve, oblivious refrain of “I’m the Immortal Iron Fist! Don’t ya know?” that makes him endearing, while the other three merely act as an interchangeable “Sure, pal”. You could argue that the events in the show are largely hinged on him but the other characters are given more than enough time and importance to show their complexity and individuality.

A moment which epitomises what I mean comes during episode 8 and carries over to episode 9, when Matt suggests that they blow up Midland Circle – the HQ of The Hand. This is a scene where the characters are given a tough choice to make and is a great chance to have some conflict and debate.

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Except, it’s a complete non-debate… there is no issue here. Luke is the only one who seriously objects to the idea and his objection is incredibly vague. I’ve watched the scene back and I still can’t find an actual reason he gives for not wanting to blow up the building. Eventually he accepts, saying the only way he’ll do it is if:

“No one but those hand monsters get hurt. Okay? Not one single innocent person. Can we all agree to that?”

But this was a given all along. Matt tells us from the offset that the building is empty and the only people who will be hurt are The Hand. Luke’s delay in accepting makes no sense to us, or at least to me. Where is the intrigue in this scene? Where is the ideological debate? The dividing of our support? What even is the point of this debate? We don’t learn anything new by the end of it that we didn’t know at the start.

A much better scene, or a scene I would have much more liked to see, is one with an actual moral decision to make. What if there were people in the building? What then? You can see Matt arguing that they should do it anyway – for the greater good. Jessica might even agree. But would Luke? Never. There you have real conflict, real choices to make. And if it leads to Luke delivering an ultimatum, “I’m not going to let you do that, Matt *raises fists*” Then that’s great! That’s what we want to see! We want to see four superheroes working towards the same end, not one amalgamous form nodding their way to victory (something that ‘The Defenders’ constantly claims itself as not being). Their disagreements should be inevitable and sometimes inconsolable. I mean, even One Direction have more disputes and motives than these guys. How do The Defenders work so harmoniously (and boringly) together despite having completely different approaches and world views?

Moreover, when does the existence of The Hand really ever ask the heroes any serious moral questions? Or to make tough decisions? How do they push The Defenders the way Joker pushes The Batman? The only time it could have been the case is when we discover that Elektra has been revived as a mindless husk. Here, we have the chance for Matt to make some difficult choices and to have to ask himself some hard questions.

But, rather than build his character, the existence of Elektra actually serves to melt Matt’s character into a shallow puddle. Gone is the morally grey, edgelord lawyer-turned-vigilante that we know and love. What we get instead is a hapless Romeo, hellbent on getting one more kiss from the woman he used to love.

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What’s doubly infuriating is that his stupidity doesn’t even have any consequences. At no point do his feelings towards Elektra actually land the group in the dump. At no point does it make him do something that acts against the interest of The Defenders or jeopardize their mission. All we get is a final ‘I’ll die in your arms’ moment which, lo and behold, is again inconsequential because he survives. There are no repercussions for Matt being in love with Elektra. In fact, we can remove her character and the show would largely still be the exact same. If we replace Elektra with a ‘generic thug’ with no prior connection to the gang, this is how the story would go:

Generic Thug is revived/summoned. GT (as they shall hence be known) sets off to fight The Defenders. The Defenders get their asses beat, run away and worry about this new threat. The Hand doubt Alexandra on her decision to spend all their resources on GT while GT questions why they exist. GT, realising what they want is power, stabs Alexandra and stages a coup, becoming the new leader. The Defenders arrive and fight GT, along with the rest of The Hand. In a battle that destroys Midland Circle and ends the threat of The Hand, one of The Defenders heroically sacrifices themselves. GT is killed… and the heroic Defender actually comes out alive. All is well.

The events of the series would be remarkably unchanged.

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Compare the relationship The Joker and Batman to this and we get a better love story than Twilight… or Daredvil. This is something even Lego understood when they made the ‘Lego Batman’ movie and gave the two a homoerotic, forlorn-lovers dynamic.

Elektra’s character only obscures Matt’s and makes him a less likeable superhero. And she adds absolutely nothing to the other three Defenders, for whom she’s just another boss battle to fight.

From top to bottom, The Hand are inadequate at doing what they’re supposed to in the show: test our heroes. None of them are ever really backed into a corner, asked to grow or find something in them that they didn’t think they had. As I’ve pointed out, the actions of The Hand are flawed. The philosophy of the hand is also flawed – can anyone tell me from watching ‘The Defenders’ alone what they actually do? And what they want, more specifically than ‘immortality’?

What does The Hand hope to achieve, other than destroy New York for inexplicable reasons? This explains why ‘the stakes’ of The Hand are flawed.

What is at stake in each film/show? In ‘The Dark Knight’, there is a lot on the line for Batman. The Joker spends the movie making threats and actually following through on them. He could kill Rachel (he does). He could corrupt Harvey Dent (he does). So at the end when he threatens to blow up the boats with the hostages, it’s very possible that he does. These things make us, the viewer, worry for the protagonist because we don’t know what they’ll lose next. But, when the stakes are the destruction of the entire city, as it is in ‘The Defenders’, we know the heroes can’t lose. Not even ‘Game of Thrones’, famed for its masochistic twists, would ever destroy the primary location where the story takes place. Therefore, the stakes in ‘The Defenders’ are flawed. We feel no tension when viewing the show, no genuine concern for our characters – because we know what’s threatened by the villains will never happen.

This all adds up to one simple conclusion: The Hand are sucky villains.

There are many reasons I feel disappointed with Marvel’s ‘The Defenders’. For one, I was excited to finally get the chance to explore ensemble cast superheroes in live action form for the first time in recent television (excluding your token Arrow/Flash crossovers) because I felt it was a chance to address one of the fundamental flaws of the Marvel Movies – that we don’t get to explore the mentality and character of the individual heroes. There isn’t enough time in a feature film. They usually get lost in the ‘team’ and thus any payoffs or emotional moments feel weak because we’re not properly invested in the characters. Yet, sadly, the same problem still plagues ‘The Defenders’, even with 8 hours to fix it.  As stated, I think these issues stem from of a lack of a good antagonist(s) in the show, though the writing in general is poor too.

As the Robert McKee stated in the opening quote, “A protagonist and his [or her] story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them”. Unfortunately for ‘The Defenders’, some very poor, vague and confused forces of antagonism make for some largely uninteresting protagonists and it is ultimately why it falls short of the expectations we were perhaps naïve to put upon it.

 

References:

Shout out to a great video by the YouTube channel ‘Lessons From the Screenplay’, who’s video on ‘The Dark Knight’ provided a lot of inspiration as well as the critical quotes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFUKeD3FJm8&t

Another good video on ‘The Philosophy of The Joker’ : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPvI2rLCIFc

 

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The Death of Hollywood PART ONE: ‘The Soulless Reboot’ and exploring the modern Action Genre

Siddh: I’m fresh from the cinema, having watched The Magnificent Seven, the latest in a long line of mediocre ‘Summer Blockbusters’ and Hollywood’s answer to tokenism. Throw in a character from most of the large racial groups in America, add one – count it – one feisty, brooding woman and an evil, moustached land-baron and let them duke it out in an epic, Wild West showdown.

And for the third time in the last few months, I leave the theatre feeling entirely… meh. The Magnificent Seven is the third reboot I’ve seen in 2016, after watching Ghostbusters and Star Trek Beyond (twice). And for the third consecutive time I find myself underwhelmed, disappointed and lamenting “how much better the original was”.

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I’m not even one of those people who believes originals are always the best, far from it – retelling stories with different emphases is how storytelling evolves. But I don’t think there’s many who could argue that any of the above films are better than their predecessors. Why is this becoming so frequent an occurrence?

There are a few external factors that are always going to be at play when you reboot a film, nostalgia being perhaps the most prominent. No matter what you do, there’s almost certainly going to be a legion of fans who are disappointed with the outcome. The second problem is concept. Because you’re rehashing an old idea, you’re already making it difficult for people to be wowed and impressed by what you put out. They’re already familiar with the story and the world – and any innovations that the original might have put forward will no longer maintain their charm. For example, in the case of Star Trek, a modern audience is not going to be amazed by spaceships and sliding doors in the way that audiences in the 60s were.

But these are small problems that even the slightest bit of creative thinking can conquer.  Just look at some successful retellings in recent memory – The Chirstopher Nolan Batman trilogy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar (though it’s not a direct reboot). These films all brought something new to the franchise. Nolan brought grit and realism to Batman (something that has since become vastly overused, but that’s the topic of an entirely different article) and made the ridiculous, endearingly-camp superheroes/villains of Gotham into believable, visceral characters. It’s not the only way to represent Batman, but it’s one, innovative way. Where Avatar shines is in its aesthetic grandeur and revolutionary visuals – the film that started the 3D craze.  The Force Awakens also benefits from jaw-dropping cinematography, as well as a fresh new cast for a world we’re all very familiar with and a general feel-good factor. Of course, financial gain is usually the motivation behind any Hollywood film being made, but at least these films did something new and did it well.

So what’s going wrong in The Magnificent Seven, Ghostbusters and Star Trek?

The Soulless Reboot

The problem is that these three films, and a host of others, are soulless reboots. There is no creative drive or inspiration behind remaking the films. There’s no particular reason for them to exist. What do they add to their respective worlds or, for that matter, to our world?

They are, instead, the product of suit-driven-filmmaking; studios dusting off old franchises and throwing them back out to capitalise on brand value and a dormant fan base in order to make easy profit. Ghostbusters is the only film you could argue has something to bring to the table: an all-female cast. But it’s still soulless. It’s characteristic of bad comedy films where we’re told to laugh more often than we’re made to laugh. It’s the same jokes and clichés we’ve heard before, so we should find them funny, right? … Wrong! Here’s a film where we’re supposed to find humour in: a fat woman yelling about food, a black woman who’s ‘simple’ nature is supposed to be endearing and a kooky, crazy blonde scientist. I’m sorry, was this meant to be a progressive, feminist film? I’m not even going to get into the sexual harassment of Chris Hemsworth’s character (and no, just reversing sexual harassment doesn’t make it okay).

But not only is there a lack of heart in these films, there’s a lack of pretty much anything. They’re underwhelming in general – not particularly funny, not particularly thrilling, not particularly emotive. They feel soulless because it’s as though they’ve been made by machines and, perhaps more accurately, by formula. They’re a product of Three Act Structure droneism where just following the textbook method for writing films is what matters and the actual content of the film is secondary. “Insert joke here; insert meta-reference here; insert mild peril, followed by cocky remark here.”

Similarly, the characters are just plastic dummies stitched together from tropes of existing characters. There’s no attempt at building them into something unique; the studio is happy enough for you to recognise that X character is the hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside type while X character is the lovable screw up who learns to do something of note by the end of the film. There is zero engagement with who these people really are, what drives them or what makes them unique. Can you think of any character from any of these movies that sticks with you? That you would turn to your friend and say, “You know, you’re a lot like _ character.”

The problem is that less and less time is being devoted to character building and more resources are being diverted to other aspects of the film, namely action.  Action is now, or perhaps it’s long been, the dominant genre. It’s hardly surprising when everything is made to suit the tastes of men. But increasingly, action is becoming an individual genre of its own without necessarily meaning to be. Films are less and less fitting the tag of ‘Action-Adventure’ or ‘Action-Comedy’ and just becoming ‘Action’.

The Separation of Genres

If you don’t make the audience care for your characters and their journey how can you call your film an adventure? And if you can’t make your audience laugh how can you call your film a Comedy?

The idea of having a multi-genre film is that you get a film with depth – not just a film that’s doing the same thing over and over. And the idea of having an action-comedy or an action-adventure is that the violence, however trivial, is meant to supplement the other elements of the film. The violence is what our protagonist(s) are forced into, either by a tragic turn of events or a comical one. Yet, more and more, violence is becoming the key focus. Action has ceased to become a means to an end, but the end itself – it is no longer a last resort a character must take in order to overcome certain obstacles and fulfil their goals. Instead, action has become the main focus in the creative process and ‘stories’ are contrived to facilitate that action. Let’s talk about it in more literal terms.

The Magnificent Seven

What was The Magnificent Seven about? If I asked someone that question after they came out of the movie they would have said it was about “7 awesome gunmen who fight an unending horde of bandits in order to save a village.” And you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, what’s wrong with that? Sounds like a good plot for a movie.’ But read that sentence again; the entire purpose of the movie is to facilitate a gigantic blaze of bullets for the final 30 minutes. The rest of the movie is non-descript. It could be any gang of shooters fighting anybody for any reason. Now, how many people answered that question with “The Magnificent Seven is about a small village of farmers whose way of life is on the brink of extinction. Desperate, they set out to find an army to defend themselves, finding only seven noble warriors to help them in their fight for survival.” So okay, I made the second one wordier.

It’s been too long since I saw the original Magnificent Seven to comment, but I have seen Seven Samurai in recent memory (the Japanese original on which both films are based), and that is one of my favourite movies of all time. I dare you to watch that film and not give the second answer when I ask you “What was the film about?”

Seven Samurai is called Seven Samurai but it’s not ONLY about the Seven Samurai (was that 21 samurai?). Really, the film is about seven warriors teaching a group of peasants to fend for themselves. The film is three and a half hours long – an absolute sin in current Hollywood climate. Yes, it’s slow, but it’s mostly necessary to tell the story that needs to be told. There’s three acts – each just over an hour long and when you see what the film achieves by the end, you understand why it’s as lengthy as it is. You need an hour to properly grasp just how desperate the villagers are, offering the samurai their last morsels of rice as payment and you need to understand each individual samurai’s motivation for helping them. In The Magnificent Seven, we get flashy two-minute sequences with a smart quip at the end that doesn’t give you any insight into the mentality of each person – they’re just fighting because. You need that second hour to see the samurai build a relationship with the villagers, to learn to care for them and to see the village learn to believe in itself. You need that final hour to see the ‘action’ unfold – not to see a flurry of swords, but to see the painful resolution of struggle. The fight takes place over three days, I don’t think the fight in The Magnificent Seven takes even three hours.  But you need to see the villagers at night – you need to see them plagued with self-doubt, fearful for their lives, deliberating if it’s best to just give up. You need to see them turn on each other, only to come together stronger in the end. Seeing the struggle and being told about the struggle are two entirely different things. Yes, it’s nice to see some cool action sequences, I want to see those in films too. But can they not be involving characters we are emotionally invested in?

The final scene of the Seven Samurai aptly sums up the difference I’m talking about. The main samurai – a war-weary veteran –  who at the start of the film warns that he is, “Always on the losing side” is watching the villagers sing and dance to celebrate their victory. He turns to the samurai next to him, also an old war-veteran, and proclaims “In the end, we lost this battle too.” Huh? He gets in response. “I mean,” he continues, “the victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.” Then he turns and stares at the graves of the four samurai who fell in the climactic fight. It is this final, bittersweet shot of the film that encapsulates what the story is about: the complex nature of struggle, loss and hope. Is The Magnificent Seven really about anything, other than Denzel Washington being a badass? I’m not convinced.

Hollywood’s obsession with pace and bass-pumping-thrill makes for shorter, snappier films, yes. But it definitely doesn’t make for better films.

Star Trek Beyond

What we see in Magnificent Seven is a preference for action over story. In Star Trek beyond we get a preference for action over character building and theme. What is the central, underlying theme of Star Trek Beyond? The villain and the battle for the space station are (or should be) secondary – what characters need in a movie, especially characters we’re already familiar with from previous movies, is internal conflict. In a good movie, characters will be grappling with themselves and the villain is ultimately just a physical manifestation of one side of that dilemma. Go back and watch a good ‘Action’ movie and you will see that the villain’s actions and philosophical perspective help the hero come to a realisation of their own, usually what they don’t want to become. Star Trek tries this… but not very hard.

Early in the movie, Kirk tells Bones that he feels he has no reason for doing what he does. His father joined Starfleet “because he believed in it”, he “joined Starfleet on a dare”. That line was thrown in on seemingly every trailer, everywhere I went, so I assumed, when I sat down to see the movie, that we would see a deeper exploration of this idea… but no. If you watched the trailer, you got as much insight as to Kirk’s ‘dilemma’ as anyone who sat through the entire movie. He never delves deeper into this thought, never really figures out what drives him, nor explores his relationship with his deceased father. Spock, similarly, gets the news that Ambassador Spock (his future self in the timeline of this story) is dead. Though it’s a fitting tribute to Leonard Nimoy (may he rest in peace), it is barely delved deeper into. We’re supposed to content ourselves with a few throwaway lines where Bones and Kirk tell Spock that he’s needed on the ship… So? Of course you’re needed on the ship, you’re frigging second in command. Is that all you’ve got? Why not an emotional realisation that his bond with Kirk is deeper than captain and subordinate, that the Enterprise is closer to being his family than anyone on Vulcan ever was? Why not an argument, internally or externally, where he tells us why he’s so desperate to go back and help the repopulation effort, other than ‘it’s what he’s supposed to do’. You broke up with the woman you love for this, let’s see how torn you are – how much it means to you and how much the weight of the expectation is bearing down on you.

Let’s say you’re in the creative room, planning out the movie. You have 20 minutes in the middle of the movie free to use. What would make the film better, make it stick with the audience after they left the cinema? A 20-minute action sequence involving a gun-battle on the shipwrecked Enterprise, ending with the whole vessel flipping over? OR two 10 minute sequences where Kirk and Spock each talk us through their emotional conflict, how they’re both feeling lost and debilitated by the individual pressures and stresses they’re under; something they can overcome together later in the film.  All too often, the decision is being made to go with the former. Maybe you disagree with me, but I really want to see more of the latter.

Especially when the theme Star Trek attempts to put forward is togetherness. That is what the main baddy, Krall, played by Idris Elba tells us… or starts off telling us then drifts off into some random tangent. When he meets Uhura, he tells her that humanity’s unity is what makes them weak and she defiantly argues to the contrary.  So why not show this in effect? Yes, at the end of the film everyone is on team Enterprise again but are they at any point actually torn apart? Are they actually divided at any point? Is their togetherness tested or exhibited in this movie? There’s murmurs of it in Spock and Kirk’s mind but it never actually comes to the surface. To make matters worse, Krall then contradicts himself when the ‘big reveal’ happens and it turns out he was a former commander in Starfleet… shock, gasp! And Starfleet abandoned him… meaning they didn’t have unity? So he goes on a warpath to destroy a space station because he wasn’t given unity, the thing he’s been claiming makes humanity weak all along…. Okay?

Whatever the flaws of the original Star Trek, it was always very cerebral. Any fights that took place were usually thirty-second long punch-ups in the dirt where William Shatner just KOs some scumbag. The main focus of the episodes were always some sort of philosophical theme. Each new planet would represent a new race, a new way of thinking, a bizarre way of life… and when Spock, Bones and Kirk came into contact with the problems of these worlds they each had a unique response to the situation, influenced by their perspective and the type of thinking they represented. Spock was logical, Bones was impulsive and emotional and Kirk was the in-between: The Superego, the Id and the Ego. I can’t help but feel like the rebooted Star Trek characters are just superficial parodies of themselves.

Sigh. I’m not going to go into why the new Ghostbusters is bad because it’s hard for me to empirically explain why it’s not funny, other than that it’s just the same shit it pretends to be better than. Sufficed to say, my strong feelings for its mediocrity are probably evident.

Instead, I’m going to take a pause for now, because I’ve ranted plenty and you’ve read more than enough words already. However, if you’re somehow still interested, I want to explore this idea further and talk about where I believe this trend started and how it’s become what it is today. So look out for Part Two in the near future.