“It seems the earthlings won.”
“Did they? That board with a nail in it may have defeated us. But the humans won’t stop there. They’ll make bigger boards and bigger nails, and soon, they will make a board with a nail so big, it will destroy them all!”
-Kang and Kodos, The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror II
The major action franchises in Hollywood have a problem. It’s a problem that will sooner or later plague them all, from brainless popcorn fare like Transformers and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, to the beloved Marvel films. It’s a problem that will confront relatively down to Earth franchises like Fast and Furious to the interstellar frontiers of the Star Wars and Star Trek films. And with each passing sequel or addition to their expanded cinematic universe, the problem grows worse.
It’s the Planet Sized Nail.
I started to think about the PSN Problem years ago, where it ran rampant in a lot of cartoons we watched as kids, and grew worse with the advent of shows like Power Rangers. The last time I was trying to make a point about how it affected a certain television show, I remembered the classic quote above from the early Simpsons run, and realized it was a pretty apt way to describe it. It didn’t take long to realize that the problem applied to a lot of the major Hollywood action franchises, and in a far more serious way.
I’m sure the problem exists long before, perhaps dating back to the early days of comic books, but I first noticed it in long running cartoon series. Most cartoons of the 80s and 90s followed a basic pattern, with the bad guys hatching some sort of insidious and, more often that not, absolutely ludicrous plot, and our heroes would try to foil it. Like clockwork, it would end in a big fight and the bad guys win, more often than not running with their tails tucked between their legs and vowing revenge.
But, as the Cleveland Browns will attest, constantly losing intimidates no one, and you’d end up with situations where a guy with a skull for a head became comical instead of terrifying. The creators, motivated by toy sales, would then create a new adversary. Either they’d be the puppet master pulling the strings, a new more powerful enemy or the big bad would receive some kind of upgrade. This, in turn, would require the heroes to find new allies, upgrade to better weapons, or some other way of upgrading their toyline. Think of Hordak in He-Man, Serpentor in G.I. Joe or Megatron becoming Galvatron in Transformers the movie.
These worked just fine at first, since most of these series never got past that first transition. Of the early shows, only G.I. Joe boasted a second main villain change, and even that was simply a return to Cobra Commander.
Again, while there might be other examples of the PSN Problem beforehand, it became a major issue with the rise of Power Rangers in the 90s. This owed a great deal to the show being based on the Japanese super sentai shows, would changed once per season and created a new cast of heroes, giant robots and monsters. Power Rangers needed a way to introduce these new powers, and did so by introducing new villains each season who were more powerful than the last, and usually proved it by destroying the weapons, robots or armor of the previous season. And Power Rangers ran for a long time.
Around this time, the comic book craze of the 90s was in full swing, and they showcased an even more violent application of this idea. It wasn’t enough to introduce a new nemesis for the X-Men, the writers usually had them kill a hero or villain just to show how dangerous this new threat was. In addition to being responsible for the increased cycle of character deaths and rebirths in comics, the stakes grew more dire with each new opponent.
You can probably start to see why I said Planet Sized Nail is a good name for this problem. Over time, the new enemies and the powers our heroes use to counter those enemies grow exponentially. Eventually, even newer villains popped up who killed those other powerful villains with ease. And those villains became more interchangeable, better known for their powers than their characterization. Can you name a Power Rangers villain after Lord Zedd? Unless you’re a series die hard, chances are you can’t. Or take the X-Men… The Marauders, the Reavers, Trevor Fitzroy and the Upstarts… while those names might be familiar to fans of the comic books, none of them carry the name recognition to casual fans that Magneto has.
Keep that in mind, as we’ll come back to it.
A Super Sized Problem
While big action films were nothing new to Hollywood, their scale remained relatively small. The impressive stunts and pyrotechnics of Terminator 2, for example, were limited to single buildings. One could argue that changed with 1996’s Independence Day. The film’s buzz grew from its Super Bowl trailer which featured the destruction of major landmarks like the White House, and many films tried to emulate its destructive scope. Another big film of 1996 was The Rock, another high octane action film by an up and coming director named Michael Bay.
In 2000, the success of X-Men opened the door for comic book movies, and 2002’s Spider-Man kicked it down, possibly for good. In these early films, the scale remained relatively small, but by the time of their first sequels already felt the pressure of outdoing the film’s previous action sequences.
In the next decade and a half, a flurry of films were released, and the escalation continued. The aforementioned Michael Bay turned Transformers into a series of titanic explosions. The Marvel films continued to escalate as well, until New York itself became a victim of the massive attacks in Avengers. Man of Steel practically leveled Metropolis, the Fast and Furious films tried to top their own manic action, and almost every city in the world was devastated in some action franchise or another, just to show how dangerous they were.
The Planet Sized Nail Problem has reared its ugly head in an even bigger way.
If you want a prime example of the sort of damage the PSN Problem can wreak in terms of characters instead of cities, look no further than the first superhero himself, Superman. In 2006, Bryan Singer tried to revive the franchise by connecting it to the classic Richard Donner films with Christopher Reeve when he created Superman Returns. The films remained true to the character, yet one criticism lobbed against the film is its lack of action sequences.
In 2013, Warner Bros tried again with Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel. The film introduced a darker take on Superman, and certainly didn’t skimp on the action sequences. Entire buildings toppled as Superman fought Zod, a fight whose ending was perhaps one of the most controversial in the entire genre. The film led to 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which featured even more devastation and, in the eyes of many fans, an even worse betrayal of Superman’s character for the sake of bigger set pieces.
As many of these major franchises will have sequels coming in the next few years, each of them will try to top not only the action of their previous installments, but to up the ante on the competition as well. With Avengers: Age of Ultron lifting an entire city into the air, it’s probably just as well the next Avengers film will deal with an all powerful relic that can shape reality to its wielder’s whims.
But when and if the Avengers defeat Thanos and his Infinity Gauntlet, where do they go next? If Justice League delivers on Darkseid and the League defeats him, where do they go next? How many cities will Michael Bay’s Transformers have to destroy by the film’s fifth or sixth installments? What in the world is Tom Cruise going to do in order to make a film even more spectacular?
At some point, this escalation coupled with the number of films flooding the marketplace are going to have a negative effect. Who knows when it will start, but at some point you have to wonder if the continuing escalation of the action will lead to audience fatigue. You could argue it already has, taken the downward trend for reviews of these films.
Is there hope for the action genre?
A New Approach
You could say the Marvel Cinematic Universe has one compelling villain in Loki, and a lot of snarling, interchangeable bad guys who don’t impact the plot all that much. In my opinion, these films could benefit not by increasing the numbers and size of the explosions and devastation, but instead by crafting compelling, relatable villains who add to the journey of the main protagonist.
And that’s the other problem with a lot of these films. So much is made of the external conflict, and how the devastation can be rendered by CGI, that there’s very little consideration of the internal one. I’m not saying these films need to be bereft of action completely, but there should be a little more consideration about how it’s taking place and whether or not it affects the hero on deeper level.
Spider-Man 2 is considered by many to be one of the stronger superhero movies ever made. While the film features some spectacular set pieces and action moments, the film is grounded by a strong villain in Doctor Octopus and how his journey becomes a mirror to Peter’s desire to step away from being Spidey. The internal and external conflicts inform one another, and make for a satisfying journey that features a surprisingly small amount of property damage, especially compared to some of the more recent blockbusters.
Let’s go back to Superman for a moment. A major criticism of him as a character is that he’s a big blue boy scout, and that his powers make it difficult to relate to the character or for any villain to present a challenge to him. As a result, we get slugfests like those of the recent movies, with few people having an emotional attachment to Superman.
But if you look at his internal conflict, there’s a lot of great story potential. Clark Kent could be anyone, could use his powers for his own gain, could force people to follow his ideals. However, that isn’t who he chooses to be. He’s a Kansas farm boy who opts to work an ordinary job and use his remarkable gifts to save people in need, with no thought of reward. Clark is an utterly unselfish person, and that strength of character makes for a compelling hero. It must be hard to be be Superman in the modern climate.
In fact, that’s just what a great Superman story called Superman vs. The Elite did. A new team of heroes known as The Elite show up, with cocky attitudes and one of Clark’s qualms about seeking justice in a court of law. The Elite are willing to kill so that the criminals of Metropolis don’t return to harm their victims again. Their approach appeals to a population that has seen criminals escape time and again and hurt people.
The conflict marries perfectly to Clark’s own doubts about his methods, and whether or not an idealist like Superman still has a place in the world. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, as it’s worth your time in printed form or its animated adaptation, but it’s a story that doesn’t rely on spectacle or shock and awe. It’s the kind of story that could make an audience relate to Superman in a powerful way, and it’s not the only one of its kind.
Take the recent, runaway success of Disney’s Zootopia as another example. The film has some inventive action scenes, to be sure, but the relationship between the characters, how the external conflict feeds and reflects on the internal, and a villain whose motivations are both understandable and deplorable make for a wonderful film that audiences want to keep going back to.
Action movies are designed to be spectacles, to be sure. But too many are investing too heavily in pyrotechnics and too little in figuring out how those conflicts will shape the characters whose stories they are telling. Marvel, DC and even Transformers have a wide range of compelling villains(seriously, if you get a chance read up on Ronan the Accuser in the comics and you’ll see Guardians of the Galaxy did themselves a disservice by not doing more with him).Crafting the stories around their personalities instead of their powers will make for better films in the long run.
Make the conflict personal, and who knows? You might learn you don’t need to knock so many buildings down.