Right, looks like this week will have to be a bit different, family situation so no time for Unvincible. Instead I’ll be delving into Spectacle Creep. YouTube channel Extra Credits does a great bit on this for games but my focus is going to remain mostly cinematic. Spectacle Creep is when creating a new movie/game/comic book/whatever, the plot raises the stakes from previous stories, upping the ante and making the “thing” more dangerous/exciting/explosive/violent.
I’ll give you an example, “Night of the Living Dead” directed by George Romero in 1968 was the first film to use zombies. In it, zombies show up and force a gaggle of strangers to spend the night in a house together. By the end all the zombies are killed and life goes on with only that house affected. Compare that to now where any movie with zombies starts at the end of the world, everything gone to Hell as humanity marches towards the maw of these monsters.
Clearly I skipped some of the history but the essential point is that where once stories started small and built up to larger conflicts films now see previous films as their jumping off point. Where once there may have been a looming threat against a single town, films now can’t have anything less than the entire world in the balance. It’s the reason why the “Transformers” films have destroyed the city of Chicago twice, why the macguffin for movies often ends up being a nuclear warhead, why many super hero films end on the rubble of their destroyed city. This might not seem like much of an issue to people, bigger is better right? Maybe, but I feel like we lose some of the personal connection to characters that have more of a stake in the problem.
One of my personal favorite films is “Back to the Future”. In it, Marty McFly travels back in time and has some shenanigans in the 50s. Do you know what his problem in the movie was? He was trapped in the 50s. Unless he captured this one particular lightning bolt, he’d be forced to live the rest of “Happy Days”. That is a problem that only affects one singular person, Marty McFly. If he screwed up only he would see the consequences. And you know what? I’m still on the edge of my seat when he’s charging that DeLorean down the main street. Why? Because I care very much that he gets what he wants, that he doesn’t mess up his one chance to get back. At no point does my concern ever ripple out to the periphery, I can focus my entire attention on the plight of the protagonist.
I bring this up because recently I watched “Guardians of the Galaxy” and I loved it. But one criticism of it was that it was another super hero movie that destroyed a city. Yes they were able to evacuate it but it’s still a fair point. Action movies now are held hostage to an impossibly high standard that few can escape. In the last few years one of the only few I can think of is “Inception”. Technically the entire film was a figment of imagination and the only threat was incarceration for the protagonist. But that feels a bit of a cheat right? Christopher Nolan got to have his city gun fights and massive blow up on a ski slope without it actually happening. But the question becomes: Is there a place for anything less than Armageddon?
Looking at the host of super hero movies on the slate, I can do some speculating. “Avengers 2” is going to kick the crap out of the entire world so that would be a no. “Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice” looks to follow in the vein of “Man of Steel” and they already destroyed Metropolis so that one is looking like a definitive no. There are two movies before that though, one being “Fantastic Four” and the other “Ant-Man”. FF looks to be trying something different—but it’s a Fox movie so something is going to collapse or explode. “Ant-Man” however could be the personal movie that we’re all looking for.
Now let me be clear, with the fiasco surrounding Edgar Wright and “Ant-Man”, I very much lost all faith in this movie. However, they’re keeping the original plot in place. The official log line is that Hank Pym recruits Scott Lang to retrieve some technology from a competitor. This has the potential to be a very personal film about Scott Lang and Hank Pym. This could be that superhero movie where we get to connect to Scott’s struggles instead of relying on the peril to root for the hero.
My main qualm with this rise in danger is that you lose some characterization. After all, if the protagonist has to choose between saving the world and not he’s going to save the world unless he’s a special kind of prick. When you scale things back, the audience gets to see the protagonist choose. Maybe the protagonist lets the small town get pulverized. It is just a small town and these people can move. Or maybe he draws a line in the sand, he’s saving this town. It’s his home, all he knows and all he cares about. That’s a choice and it shows where the protagonist’s values are. But to ramp it up to saving the world, there’s no choice there and there’s no particular reason why they’re saving the world—they’re saving the world because they’re not a moron.
Looking ahead to the future movie releases may not give me much hope. But that’s why these Marvel series on Netflix are so important to me. Daredevil has never been one of my favorite characters, however he’s never “Saved the World”. Not once. His care ends at Hell’s Kitchen. To him, a successful day is stopping another mugging or preventing a murder. It’s a much more personal story and maybe we can finally see that character turmoil can be greater than galactic peril.