The Journey Goes All The Way To The End

A blast from the past here, but… Captain America: The First Avenger has been bothering me ever since I first saw it. There’s so much in this film that’s brilliant. Truly brilliant. The first sixty minutes or so has a good shot at the title of Best Superhero Origin Movie Ever (only Batman Begins is a serious rival).

But then… what? There’s a bunch of stuff, not nearly enough Howling Commandos, a moment of genuine tragedy, and then the Arctic and the present day (the latter of which is actually handled really well). But none of it, well…

None of it seems to matter.

But why?

For a long while, I wondered if the movie has a villain problem. The Red Skull always felt a little out of keeping with the tone of the movie, and yes, more villain-hero screentime would certainly have helped established a meaningful conflict between them…

But I’m starting to think something else is wrong here. The real problem is, the hero’s emotional journey finishes partway through the movie.

Steve Rogers’ journey, within this movie, is essentially a quest to realise his own potential as a leader and a hero. There’s greatness in him from the start: Bucky sees it, Erskine sees it, Peggy sees it. But the rest of the world can’t. Even when he’s transformed into that deeply ironic Aryan ubermensch, the Army has no use for him except as, in his words, a performing monkey.

What Steve has to learn, ironically, is true courage. He’s always been happy to start fights he can’t win, but that’s just belligerence and self-righteousness. You can’t become a great leader that way. In disobeying orders to save his best friend, Steve assembles a team, shows leadership, and risks his life for someone he cares about. This is the moment he truly becomes Captain America –

And in any other movie, that would be the whole narrative. Bucky’s (wonderfully conflicted) shout “Let’s hear it for Captain America” feels like the last line of a movie – because, emotionally, it is. Steve has undergone his emotional transformation, for this movie at least, and the narrative should be over.

But it can’t be, because there’s still so much set-up for the Marvel universe at large to be got through.

Wait, I hear you cry: there’s Bucky’s death, for a start. Isn’t that part of Steve’s emotional journey? Yes, definitely – their relationship is the key to the whole (cinematic) Captain America universe –

But the writers have a problem here. It’s part of Steve’s emotional journey in the next movie. Hit it too hard here, and you not only risk tipping the audience off to what will happen next, but you undercut the next movie, leaving it repeating emotional beats you’ve already played here. So, inevitably, Bucky’s death has to be underplayed for the good of the larger narrative, leaving the second half of Act Two of this movie weaker than anyone would have wanted it.

And there’s the big showdown with the villain, right? Yes, but… really, where’s the emotional drive in Act Three? Aside from Steve’s final sacrifice – and remember, the teaser to the movie has already told us he survives – where are the stakes, the choices, the failures and the victories? What are we being asked to feel?

(Actually, I’m starting to think that Act Three is the weak point in many Marvel movies. Only The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have a truly satisfying Act Three – and why? Emotional journeys. But that’s a subject for another time.)

The point here, though, is that Steve’s emotional journey is already concluded. His choices here reinforce who he is, but they don’t reveal new elements of him, they don’t change him. He’s still that person he became when he turned the Captain America persona from a stage act into a hero – and if your hero isn’t changing and growing, then the action he undertakes is inevitably flat and emotionally meaningless.

So what can we learn here?

When adapting existing material, it’s easy to assume that in order to reach point F, you simply have to work through points A – E. To set up Steve Rogers in the modern world, simply romp briskly through everything that happened before he got there. But your character may not be undergoing a single united emotional journey during that period. There may be several, which the original material had time to cover – and you don’t. But if you don’t find an emotional journey that will cover the whole of your chosen narrative, you end up with some scenes that have meaning, and some that just don’t…

Things I Learned From… The Hobbit

Tons to do this week, so not much time for blogging, but I just wanted to offer a short observation on The Hobbit (see what I did there? Go on, laugh. Go on. Please…?)

Always end with a bang.

A lot of screenwriters spend a lot of time on the first thirty pages of their script. And so they should: if the first thirty pages aren’t spectacular, the chances of the rest ever getting read are pretty damn poor. But if the first thirty pages are the ones getting all the love and attention at script stage –

Then the last thirty are the pages that should get the attention at the plotting, planning and prepping stage.

If you don’t end with a bang, you don’t really have a movie.

And even if you don’t really have a movie, ending with a bang might save your backside.

The Hobbit is pretty slow and pretty meandering for the first ninety minutes plus. Part of that is down to stretching the story to three movies, part is down to the largely episodic nature of the original material. Neither of those is really an excuse for the movie as delivered, by the way. Adaption is a process of fixing problems, not causing or replicating them. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

Because, despite the languid ramble through the history of Middle Earth, despite the unnecessary rock giants and the heavy-handed attempt to model the structure on The Fellowship Of The Ring, something sent me out of that cinema with a big grin on my face and eager to see it again ASAP.

And that something was the last 45 – 60 minutes.

Ever been to a film or a children’s stage play with a five-year-old? Chances are they’ll be shuffling, muttering and looking in random directions for 90% of the event. But at the end, they’ll insist it was brilliant and they had the best time ever – because the only bits they remember are the two or three scenes that genuinely gripped them. They’ve totally forgotten that they were ever bored, because the experience of the good bits massively outweighs the bad.

Well, adult cinema audiences aren’t that much different. Their mood as they leave the cinema will be largely dictated by the ending. Give them an upbeat ending where the hero comes into his own and triumphs, at least in part; where plot points pay off and surprises are delivered; send them out saying “Wow, wasn’t that final bit brilliant?” and they’ll be happy.

Of course, send them out saying “Wasn’t the whole thing brilliant?”, and then you’ve really got something…