Think back to the first time you saw Star Wars, to the moment when Luke Skywalker entered the Death Star’s trench, Darth Vader hot on his tail, saying, “The Force is strong with this one.”
It felt like anything could happen, didn’t it? Luke could die. The Death Star could destroy Yavin IV (after all, it had already destroyed Alderaan). The other rebel pilots were mostly dead and, God damn it, Luke had switched off his targeting computer. Catastrophe is lurking just around the corner and you’re gripping your seat, thinking, “Fire the damn torpedo already, Luke!”
When Luke does manage to destroy the Death Star, it’s not just a relief, it’s like you can finally breathe again. Disaster has been avoided, but only barely.
Now, think about Return of the Jedi. There’s a second Death Star that’s not yet complete. At one point, it fires its laser and destroys… a spaceship we knew nothing about. The team sent to destroy the second Death Star is made up of characters we don’t really know other than Lando. There’s no antagonist chasing Lando down other than nameless TIE Fighter pilots. Were you on the edge of your seat when you first saw this? Did you worry that the Rebels would lose?
Of course not. You’d seen this before. You knew what would happen.
The Empire can only threaten to destroy the world once. After that, it’s just blowing smoke.
Despite the attempts of countless directors and movie production studios, the success of the original Star Wars film cannot be outdone by having villains threaten to blow up Earth or whatever alien planet the film is set on. The audience knows the hero will manage to defeat the villain. Ultron is not going to beat the Avengers and eradicate all of humanity. The second Death Star was never going to destroy the Rebel Alliance. The ridiculous Bond villains in Pierce Brosnan’s Bond films were not going to set off tons of nukes all over the world. General Zod in Man of Steel wasn’t going to kill all life on Earth.
Like the Empire, directors can’t keep promising audiences that the world might be destroyed and expect to have the audience on the edge of the seat. This poses a large problem for franchises, such as the Marvel films, the upcoming DC films, and possibly the new Star Wars films (note that Lucas did not go back to this tactic in the prequels- for all the prequels’ faults, Lucas was not trying to one up himself, but instead aimed to tell a different story). If you threaten New York City in the first film then you need to threaten the Earth in the next one and after that you have to threaten the entire universe. Yet, if New York City didn’t get destroyed in the first film, why would anyone think the next film would actually have the balls to destroy the entire planet? Or the universe? Or all of time and space?
The best 2000s blockbuster series to handle this conundrum was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series. There’s been a tendency to sometimes elevate Nolan’s series to perfection by fans, which can grow tiresome, but there’s much in these films to respect, especially in the middle film, The Dark Knight, which serves as an antidote to many of the high stakes problems other blockbusters suffer from.
The ending of The Dark Knight revolves around whether or not two ferries will explode. The Joker has planted a bomb on each ferry and placed a detonator on each, as well. The catch is that should a passenger activate the detonator, the other ferry will explode. If within a certain timeframe neither ferry blows up the other then the Joker will send both sky-high. Further complicating matters, one of the ferries is filled with prisoners and the other is filled with everyday passengers. The viewer gets the feeling that since one ferry is filled with prisoners there’s a good chance that it’ll blow up. Otherwise, why have the difference?
The Dark Knight keeps an intense pressure leading up to the ferry scene. Rachel Dawes, a primary character in Batman Begins, dies in a Joker-caused explosion; Harvey Dent gets half of his face blown off and goes insane after the film built him up as a hero on the level of Batman; the Joker seems unstoppable, capable of appearing anywhere without notice. Further, the Joker’s purpose is to show Batman how the people of Gotham are not worth saving, that Batman’s mission is futile. The Joker isn’t interested in leveling Gotham City; he’s interested in breaking down Bruce Wayne’s psyche. In a film series that enjoys deconstructing Batman, the idea that the film might prove Batman’s faith misplaced is not an impossibility.
Focusing on the ferries is a smart tactic on Nolan’s part. The explosion of the ferries would not bring Gotham to its knees. The Batman film series could easily continue if one of them, or both of them, exploded. What wouldn’t survive is the viewer’s faith in the people of Gotham, a faith the Batman films have not gone out of their way to guarantee. Batman would certainly become a more grizzled, bitter figure, a possibility that is also not out of the question (just read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns).
Philosophical battles are at stake during The Dark Knight’s conclusion instead of solely physical ones. Because the stakes are smaller, the outcome is more unpredictable and because a philosophical battle is ingrained in the stakes, they feel as if they represent the entire movie instead of just an action set piece that aims to end the film with some CGI. These types of stakes kept the audience at the edge of its seat and resulted in The Dark Knight becoming both a critical and financial success, one that other films tried to ape. Just take a look at The Avengers, Skyfall, and Star Trek Into Darkness, all of which tried to replicate the way The Dark Knight built to a conclusion that relied more on ethical and sociological debates than saving the world, but none of which managed to pull it off (Skyfall came closest). Both The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness tried to have an end of the world scenario and the intellectual angle of The Dark Knight. However, the spectacle of end of times activities swallows both films’ climaxes.
Take Star Trek Into Darkness, a film with great intentions, but one that ends up failing in almost all respects when it comes to dramatic heft. Towards the end of the film, the villain, Kahn, has his ship crash into San Francisco, almost destroying Starfleet Academy. In a sense, the film has Kahn follow through with his promise of destruction, but the destruction he does cause can easily be ignored as no major characters die and the incident is only mentioned in an epilogue. This hits as an approach trying to have it both ways. Yes, it’s unfair to expect Star Trek Into Darkness to grapple with the deaths of thousands in the wake of Khan blasting through San Francisco with only ten minutes left in the film, but it’s also dishonest that it doesn’t, especially since it wants to call on 9/11 imagery (another overused trope in blockbuster films). Much of the film is a remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. That film’s conclusion did not involve mass destruction, but instead a cat and mouse game between Captain Kirk’s starship and Kahn’s. Instead of spectacle, the finale revolved around building tension.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of the most flagrant examples of too large stakes. Its ending revolves around The Avengers stopping Ultron from eliminating all life on the planet. There’s no question whatsoever that Ultron will be defeated (it doesn’t help that more sequels have already been announced) and the Avengers will come out unscathed. Even worse, the final battle is empty, with the Avengers punching nameless goons of Ultron’s. It’s impressive choreography and CGI, but it lacks any sort of dramatic weight. It’s about as far as you can get from Luke Skywalker’s trench run.
In the opposite direction, we have Watchmen. Watchmen, both in film and comic form, recognizes the problem of too large stakes and flips it on its head. While the Watchmen film does not have the power of the graphic novel, it deserves credit for not varying from Alan Moore’s borderline satirical take on End of the World plots. When the two superheroes (or antiheroes, especially in the case of Rorschach, but in the world of Watchmen unless you’re an outright serial killer you seem decent) Nite Owl and Rorschach arrive to stop Adrian Veidt from faking an alien invasion in order to unite the Soviet Union and the United States, it’s expected they will succeed in stopping him. His method of faking the invasion involves the very real destruction of New York City, a possibility that scarcely bears thinking about.
After a fight, Nite Owl and Rorschach tell Veidt they’re not going to let him blow up New York no matter how positive an outcome he thinks it’ll yield. It’s the regular clichéd dialogue.
Yet Viedt calmly informs them: “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”
Not only does this up the stakes of the film since the audience now feels any event can happen, it’s an outright critique of other stories that use the End of the World plot as a clutch to create false drama and urgency. What doubles the shock of Viedt’s revelation is audiences are used to not believing a film will follow through on its threats, causing a sense of complacency in viewers. Watchmen’s twist acts as a slap in the face.
The argument against the Watchmen approach would be that having the world blow up at the end of blockbuster movies would be unsatisfying after a while (or even after one film or two). This is true, which is why diverting from End of the World stakes is absolutely necessary should blockbuster films aim to add an artistic element to cinema (and, to be clear, some have). Even trying to meet halfway leads to less than satisfying results.
The argument to have smaller, more personal stakes in blockbuster films is not made in order to demean them; blockbuster films can be very beautiful films, just look at Casino Royale or The Dark Knight or Interstellar or Toy Story or The Lord of the Rings and I could go on. Yet the reliance on massive, world, or even galaxy altering stakes is only robbing the films of dramatic effect and making them cheaper, erasing the human element. It’s time to rework the formula and for blockbuster films to learn that, in this case, bigger isn’t better.