Retire This is a column about movie cliches. Now, we’re not here to tell you that a movie should never have any cliches, plenty of great movies have lots of them. Cliches can work wonderfully if you know how to use them. But the first step towards making them work is knowing that they exist.
By the time X-Men: Apocalypse opens Friday, 2016 will have brought us three superhero team-up movies in as many months. The highest domestic gross of 2016 belongs to Deadpool, which opened a month before that. Three of 2016’s five top grossers are superhero movies. All of which is to say: it’s going to be a long time before the big studios aren’t spending the bulk of their money and energy on superhero franchises.
Under the circumstances, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that they stop recycling the same garbage plot points. And hey, don’t do it for me, do it for you! I promise, it’s not the crappy cliches people show up for. Deadpool is the 2016’s current highest-grosser domestically, thanks largely to a few swear words and a basic acknowledgement of its own tropes. Just the acknowledgment was enough — hardly anyone even minded that after pointing them out they mostly just used them unironically anyway. Captain America: Civil War, at 90 percent on RottenTomatoes, is the best reviewed, despite being mostly pretty dull outside of the airport scene. While DC’s gang of chemtrail truthers will tell you that that’s because Disney paid off all the critics, it’s more likely due to the fact that Civil War studiously avoided some of the most obvious third-act tropes. Innovation is your friend! And honestly, it doesn’t take much.
Now then, let’s retire these tropes forever:
The Space Laser Pointed At Earth
Countless superhero movies, especially in the past decade, have ended with the heroes having to thwart a bad guy pointing a giant laser thingy at Earth: to suck its power, to terraform it (Man of Steel), to plunge it into darkness so that it can be ruled by Dark Elves (Thor: The Dark World), etc. I suspect this came about as a consequence of the fallacy that “bigger stakes = bigger drama!” Superhero movies kept trying to top each other, with evil plans that got bigger and bigger, until it wasn’t just the Earth being threatened, but “the very fabric of reality” (The Dark World again, which, actually, works great as parody).
Aside from the fact that any plot point that gets repeated enough eventually becomes a droning sound the audience learns to tune out, the idea that bigger stakes equals bigger drama doesn’t even work. It never has. One of the best explanations of the phenomenon comes in Ace in the Hole, a Billy Wilder movie from 1951 starring Kirk Douglas as unscrupulous news man Chuck Tatum. At one point, trying to explain how to sell papers, Tatum describes the concept of human interest to the junior reporter, Herbie:
TATUM: One man is better than 84. Didn’t they teach you that?
HERBIE: Teach me what?
TATUM: Human interest. You pick up the paper. You see something about 84 men. Or 284 men. Or a million people, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn’t stay with you. One man is different. That’s human interest. You want to know all about him. Somebody all by himself — like Lindbergh over the Atlantic.
Or, as Lush Life author Richard Price put it (in a quote you can find all over Pinterest):
“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”
Sure, writing superhero movies isn’t exactly the same as writing about atrocities (though the writers of Batman v Superman and Civil War sure seem to want it to be), but getting people to care is the same. We don’t need the heroes to save the whole Earth or the universe or the fabric of reality in order to be invested. It’s actually kind of alienating. What’s a movie from the last few years that everyone loves? How about John Wick? He’s not saving the Earth, he’s just pissed because some guys killed his dog. Truth is, the audience cares more about one dog than the entire Earth. Probably the best thing about Civil War (and a big part of the reason it got so many good reviews) is that they didn’t have to save the world at the end.
The worst part about the saving-the-entire-planet, let’s-make-these-stakes-huge trope is that the superhero movie writers seemed to realize it. Yet instead of changing anything, they just wrote the characters feeling bad about all that collateral damage. Oh joy, mopey superheroes, just what I’ve always wanted. (You know, there’s a reason Stan Lee’s plans for “Introspection Man” never got off the ground). Both Civil War and Batman v Superman had their characters mourn their respective franchises’ past crappy writing. At least Civil War had the decency not to just do it all over again anyway.