Similar ideas here. In fact in a lot of recent Marvel and DC films, we get similar scenes with similar stories—brief sequences in both universes where the movies are trying to accomplish the same thing. But why do they feel so different?
This is the last installment in my series on great movies and the fundamental features that make them work. We started by looking at how the often unnoticed element of cinematography and the visuals of a film affect us on a subconscious level. After that, we turned to writing and plot, examining how the single element of connectivity has possibly the greatest impact on the effectiveness of a movie. And now, this week, we end by studying the art of character.
Of course there are thousands of types of characters, and we love all of them. We admire the Atticus Finch, lament the Jake LaMotta, and fear the Darth Vader. We long for heroes, antiheroes, the funny guy and the cool cat, the underdog, the favorite, the sensual, the lighthearted—we love them all. But the thing that really makes us love them is not their characteristics. No, it’s that universal capacity we have, the same one that makes us love anyone: empathy.
While in theory, this empathy stuff is fairly simple, but in practice—in actually establishing empathy with a character—it can be a little tricky. Cinema, for over a century now, has struggled in determining how they can create that empathetic feeling. Television figured out at some point that they could elicit empathy almost solely by means of time-spent. Every episode, every minute of screen time we spend with a character compounds on our attitude toward them. (That’s partially why we can have a downright despicable brother or sister, and still love them: time-spent.) Shows like Seinfeld thrive on creating characters we come to know over several seasons, the jokes getting funnier as we come to expect certain reactions from certain characters. That’s the whole reason the twitter account @SeinfeldToday can exist—because Seinfeld characterized so well.
Netflix’s take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another example. Netflix may stumble at times in story—allowing for a few dud episodes in series you’ll likely binge watch—but they have consistently delivered high quality characters—Daredevil, Fisk, Jones, Kilgrave, Cage—with depth that we get to know through sheer time spent together. Netflix has always done this well; many people account for the success of Stranger Things by pointing to the excellent characterization of the children.
This is part of the problem with Game of Thrones. It has too many characters to balance and their gray moral center, which is (debatably) more realistic, is hard to follow for general audiences.
That said, television and quantity-of-time is clearly not everything when it comes to developing empathy for characters. Probably the strongest contributor to a working character is clearly defined motivation and a history of acting on that motivation. (This is, admittedly, the same general principle from the post on plot.) Understanding a character, tracking with their decisions, comprehending why they did something—even if you don’t agree—is crucial to liking a movie.†
Beauty and the Beast, a film perfect in every way, demonstrates this through the villain Gaston. When the French Fabio learns of Belle's feelings for the Beast and decides to rile a mob and storm the Beast's castle, the action feels natural and earned. It works because Disney, up to this point, has perfectly characterized Gaston as vain, jealous, and petty. We know exactly why he must kill the object of Belle's affection. Thematically, Gaston's vanity is contrasted with the Beast who learns by the end of the film to finally put someone above himself.
Or think of The Fellowship of the Ring. At the end of the movie when Frodo and Sam sail off on their own, it is likely not the best decision; I’m sure statistically there are far more helpful options. But their decision in that moment is the one most keeping with their characters, and that’s why it works. Your mind doesn’t get hung up on why but immediately enters a balanced state of optimism and lament as the narrative pushes forward.
This entire blog series has been about the fundamentals, trying not to worry about complex time-travel narratives or unbelievably textured, Oscar-worthy villain performances, but instead focusing on shooting a scene correctly, telling connected stories, and making real characters. But even for a movie with a great plot and stunning visuals—even if has the twist you never saw coming and the technically brilliant long-take—it is the establishment and consistency of characters that matters.
Napoleon Dynamite, Inside Llewyn Davis, Casino Royale, There Will Be Blood, Drive, Remember the Titans, Glengary Glen Ross, The Hangover, Oblivion, My Dinner with Andre (if you’re into that kinda stuff), The Big Lebowski, Silver Lining’s Playbook.
Also: Troy (an excellent movie and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). Certainly, Troy is bolstered by the divinely chiseled face of Brad Pitt, a couple choreographed fight scenes, and a handful of cool yells, but it is a great film because of its characters.
On the other hand, you can have plot and visuals—Man of Steel, The Last Airbender—and still flop.
All this brings us back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Aside from their strong source material, the MCU has had the unique ability to consistently deliver well-written characters. Their newest installment, Doctor Strange, was a welcome refreshment because it reminded us of the first phase of Marvel, giving a true origin story where we can watch a strong/likable character grow and change based on real obstructions they encounter in life.
Since the first phase, the MCU has coasted on characters we know—much like a television show—and at times it may seem like they may be spinning the wheels as far as plot goes, but their characters have remained top-notch. They always act within the parameters given them; we can follow why they do the things they do.
I don’t want to say that phases 2 and 3 have been bad (goodness no, Civil War was fantastic), but they have been hovering as of late. Marvel may be assuming too much empathy as they crank out new movies, and they aren’t nearly willing enough to experiment and change. Still, they’re not wrong—we do care about their characters, we just need some drama.
Every movie is striving for greatness, and they all go about it in different ways. There are always going to be different settings and tropes that appeal to each of us. There are lots of ways to make your movie interesting, but there is a standard—a baseline—that has the greatest impact on our love for a film: the fundamentals—the visuals, the plot, and the characters. And within those three, there is the underlying need for empathy, for the audience to follow step by step. And when, in a moment of dread, the audience cries out from their cushioned chairs at a two-dimensional screen, “Oh not that—not now!” then you know they’re there.
† Acting is not one of the ways you can develop good characters. They’re all professionals out there. Good acting helps, sure, but bad acting is not ruining a movie—bad writing is.