Saving the world - again!
I'm tired of the 'the end of civilisation as we know it' scenarios.
In so many speculative fictional worlds, in films and TV, there's an increasing emphasis on world (or universe) ending climaxes. When you look at Phase 4 of what Marvel is doing, there have been so many threats, they've had to introduce a multiverse. There have been threats to Earth first of all, when that wasn't enough, the dangers engulfed the universe as half the population vanished. Now that's not enough either. If you watched the animated What If? series, its climax envisioned the premise of all the universes being threatened! How much longer until it appears in live action stories?
It creates a problem. When stories employ threats that grow in this way, they reach a point where that threat loses its edge. It's the problem of formulaeic storytelling, a pit Marvel have fallen into, where every story has an end-of-the-world feature at its core. It doesn't need to be that way.
Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a break from that formula that I enjoyed a lot. Sure, the world and its inhabitants, face a terrible threat. Will they save the world? Of course they will. But that's not what the story is about. The threat isn't disclosed until the start of the third act! Even then, the battle only lasts a few minutes. No, the story is about the resolution of the conflict between father and son.
What I loved in this film was its focus on character arcs, the special effects, the monsters and the like were all secondary factors. It was the story of a family torn apart by grief and loneliness. Surely, characterisation should be the focus of every epic story, shouldn't it? When you look at Russian literature, for example, the same is true. Events may happen over long periods of time, over sprawling landscapes and amidst catastrophic wars - but the story is about people. A family, a love triangle, a community.
For me, a victim of this permanent world-ending storytelling is Dr Who. I speak as a one-time fan, someone who watched the first episode in 1963 astonished at the originality of theconcept. But, over time, (pun intended!) what kept me engaged wasn't the Daleks or Cybermen and the like, it was the character of the doctor. Hartnell created a grumpy, deceitful and impatient doctor, Troughton tweaked him with greater eccentricities, Pertwee I'll miss out, Tom Baker turned him into a wild, unpredictable and loveable rogue. Yes they all faced threats, often to the world as we knew it. BUT, the story was about how the Doctor reacted to it, how his unconventional approach offered solutions. The Doctor was the focus of the story, not the threat created by the baddies. Now the role is cute, mildly amusing, vanilla. And like every other SF programme! That's my opinion!
These days commercial factors rule the storytelling. Daleks return again and again because they are popular. In one series they try to take over the world/universe/time - they're defeated. But guess what, they come back again to do the same thing a series or two later. For a story based on time travel, this is taking deja vu too far!
Back to Marvel for another example. I listened to the film critic, Mark Kermode, review The Eternals and he began by making a point which is relevant here. This is what he said - the Eternals are a bunch of god-like beings who have vowed not to interfere in human affairs. Yet the story has them getting involved because they love us so much! With that in mind, why didn't they get involved when Thanos wiped out half the population? The answer is a contrived one. Just like Captain Marvel couldn't intervene initially - because she was too busy saving other civilisations on the other side of the universe. Really?
Storytelling falls apart when it becomes so contrived we need to escalate the threat to keep our audiences engaged and coming back for more. Surely, there are only so many times we can believe in these end-of-the-world scenarios before we tire of them? Good storytelling doesn't work when it becomes formulaeic.
Here's another example. As a teenager in the 60s, I loved Spiderman as a character because I could relate to him. He was nerdy and nervous, just like me. I bought the comics because I could imagine myself in those situations. Yeah, Green Goblin, Venom, Mysterio and the others put him in danger all the time and that kept me hooked. But I bought the comics because the character was flawed, a teenager given superpowers who makes mistakes - because teenagers don't possess the reasoning skills to deal with them like an adult. In the Tom Holland iteration of the franchise, much of that is ignored for the epic battles, the humanity-saving bit. Worse still, far worse, Spiderman is now powered by Stark technology, a Spiderman for the twenty-first century perhaps? But it only means his character gets lost, diluted at best and the story becomes about the battle. Will he win? Will he survive? Answer? Of course he'll win, of course he'll survive. What do we learn about his character? How does it feature in the story? In my opinion, it rarely does and I've lost interest in that franchise for this reason.
For those of you who grew up watching British TV in the 70s, you're bound to remember Blake's Seven. A story of the crew of a stolen spaceship, trying to survive against a cruel and ruthless dictatorship intent on destroy them. A space age Robin Hood against the Sheriff of Nottingham.
It was done by the BBC, following on from the success of Dr Who. The series had the same low budget but great scriptwriters (created by Dalek maker, Terry Nation). The sets were truly awful, the special effects even more so. Like Dr Who, much of the filming took place in quarries! But, the series worked because of its characters. The crew fought endlessly, they didn't trust each other but they had a common enemy so they had to collaborate in order to survive. It's become a common feature in lots of stories. I use Blake's Seven to illustrate my point - the success of this series, despite its truly awful production values, lay in its characters. It didn't need the world to end. We wanted to know how the characters would continue to survive.
Before anyone points out that my latest book, The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, has a world-endangered threat running through its plot, let me defend the reasoning. The focus, as this review points out, is about how its main character, Frida, deals with this crisis. She is flawed, bitter and isolated so she has no loyalty to other people. Yet she has to make a decision whether to save them or not. The focus isn't about if she stops the baddie - it's about the choice and the factors that complicate this choice.
What's my point? I suppose it's this: there is a danger in the climax dominating the story to such an extent it wipes out the details that matter. The characters are overwhelmed by the story. I see this happening in so many of the superhero films and TV series especially. Yet, go back to the source materials, the comics, the emphasis there was always on the characters. Films and TV now offer budget-busting SFX that audiences seem to expect - more than the story, it seems. Or, producers think they do!
I worry this trend is reflected in so much speculative fiction. The end of the world as we know it, features as the climax to so many stories. I find myself avoiding them more and more for stories where the threat is less epic, where character interaction dominates, where relationships are explored, where meaningful and intelligent themes are discussed.
There are only so many times when a hero is beset with saving the world before it prompts a yawn and a feeling of 'here we go again'. So let's dial back the dangers and allow characters to shine shall we?