by: Matthew J.R. Kohler
There was once a time when movies had boundaries, both in terms of time and money. With every day that passes, we see these boundaries fading with frequent updates on upcoming giant spectacles such as Captain America: Civil War, Suicide Squad, and Avengers: Infinity War. For me, superhero movies/action films have become so big that they have become uninteresting. Below, I explain why the less-is-more approach works best in films, and how the more-is-more approach is slowly destroying blockbuster movies today.
When the 1989 film, Batman, was announced, many comic book fans were excited to see one of their favorite heroes on the big screen. Then, Warner Bros. announced the star power behind it—Michael Keaton as Batman, and Jack Nicholson as The Joker. You’re probably thinking, “That’s all?”. Here’s the thing, a lot of the most successful movies had three stars at most. Highlander had only Sean Connery; The Matrix merely had Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves; Goodfellas had Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro. The reason more big name actors are not in these films because they would have cost too much money. Batman (1989) cost roughly $30 million. With two massive stars and a few set pieces, it’s clear that there was not enough money for a third big actor. That is okay. In fact, limiting a movie to three stars allows for more screen time for each character, and therefore allows for more character development. It’s not surprising then that Batman is considered by fans and critics to be the best of the four Batman movies from the 1980s and 1990s, and it is the most financially successful film of the four, with a gross of over $250 million.
When watching Batman, Joker and Batman have almost equal screen time, and you see a transformation in both characters. Sure, there are smaller characters with goals, such as Vicki Vale and Knox, but it is clearly Keaton and Nicholson’s movie. Now, look at 1995’s Batman Forever. With $100 million this time round, Warner Bros. could make, or buy anything. Sure enough, they casted Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Nicole Kidman, and Chris O’Donnell. I re-watched this film recently, and I discovered that this film doesn’t actually have a main character. Each character has only about ten to twenty minutes of development. Hell, we see Riddler’s origin, Robin’s origin, Two Face’s origin, Nicole Kidman gives her back story, and Bruce Wayne retells his origin. We received a bigger movie, and, while it was successful, it didn’t even crack $200 million.
So what about a film that actually succeeded at making an ensemble movie, such as The Fellowship of the Ring? Easy, the director Peter Jackson knew the overarching story belonged to Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. How many scenes feature different characters that don’t involve those two? Not many; only the scenes with Gandalf and Saruman exclude them. However, by that point we have had six scenes with Frodo to establish his character. If a movie tries to focus on too many characters, it will fail. That is why I think The Dark Knight is better than The Dark Knight Rises. Supporting characters are necessary, in order to help (support) the main character in achieve their goals, which is why The Fellowship of the Ring also has characters such as Aragorn and Gandalf.
Another thing Fellowship did superbly is it took thirty minutes to set up the universe before the action starts. Sure, it has that awesome action set piece at the beginning, but it is there to enhance the story, and is so brief that it gives the audience a sample of what is to come. Action scenes in these bigger movies such as The Avengers and Age of Ultron happen so often, and for such a long period of time, that they are merely for looks and fan service, and not to advance the story in a significant way, or to excite you after waiting for 30-plus minutes of character and plot development.
When The Avengers came out, people were blown away by it. But when you look at the movie as a whole, was it really that great? Even in ensemble films, there is a central character to the film, but I couldn’t figure out who that was in this movie. I guess Iron Man is, because he makes the most jokes throughout the film, and gets the final joke at the end. For these last four years, we have received everything, and nothing at the same time from Marvel. When The Dark Knight came out, they promised you a grounded Batman vs. Joker movie. That is what you got. If you don’t like that style, then that is not the movie’s fault. When a Jackie Chan movie came out, he promised unique fight scenes and crazy stunts. If you didn’t like that, then why are you watching martial art films? The Avengers promised The Avengers, and you really didn’t get that. Instead, you got to see them fighting for no apparent reason, face a sucky villain, and constantly joke around with each other. No one’s character developed, most criminally being Captain America, who is supposed to be dealing with the pain of being viciously ripped from the love of his life. A lot of fans may think they are getting everything by seeing a bunch of famous characters team up, but here’s the reality: the more characters/stars you put in a movie, the more the story worsens. There is a reason that Burton’s Batman is talked about over 25 years later, while 3-year-old Avengers has been thrown to the ground for the subsequent Marvel films that promise everything under the sun (action, jokes, references to other Marvel movies, action, jokes, appearances from other Marvel characters, action, jokes, and a post-credits scene that sets up the next movie). Sure, Burton’s Batman is very different, but he gave you a couple of good sips, not the whole bottle. What does the magician do? He never gives his trick away. So why do movies now give everything away? Easy, it’s because they have nothing to offer. They just want your money.