The Problem with Big Productions and their Cardboard Badasses
I like to tell people I was raised by television. It's a half-truth. My parents weren't the irresponsible type, yet still indulge in countless hours of television themselves today. They saw no harm in me doing something safe, cheap and that was part of the fabric of their own lives. So, I've became obscenely knowledgeable in television and film as a consequence of that. I've also became quite defensive of the strong, burly, self-reliant male characters who were my primary model for masculinity growing up.
I'm talking about the characters played by the Sylvester Stallones, Arnold Schwarzeneggers, Bruce Willis, Wesley Snipes, Ray Liottas and Christophe Lamberts of this world, who reigned over the nineties. Badasses.
Characters like these are progressively fading away from television and movie screens in the twenty-first century and they're not exactly being replaced by a more exciting and diverse cast. Badasses more, male, white and blood-pumpingly hereto than they're ever been, but they're unmemorable. They're becoming impossible to differentiate from one another, too. Even a charismatic actor like Dwayne Johnson can't manage to land a signature role. He's just playing The Rock playing random dudes in impossible situations. Why is that so? How have we broken our badasses?
It has something to do with how movies have changed and how they're being made today.
The game has changed in the twenty-first century. Movies have become even more of a cut-throat, big money business that it's even been. Part of that is due to television offering a more enjoyable and profitable experience to audiences, part is due to superheroes' cultural dominance and the little breathing room they give other badasses to exist. I'm sure there are other factors involved too, but both of these lead to movie studios not wanting to waste their money. And when you don't want to waste your money, you're trying to take decisions based on data. Cold, hard facts.
So, cardboard badasses we suffer today are the characters market research thinks large groups of people want to see in movies. This is an insidious logic. Imagine a power point presentation that reads more or less like this.
Our research indicates that:
67% of people between 18 and 44 enjoy movies about soldiers and/or people protecting America against foreign threats.
49% of people between 25 and 44 enjoy movies about real-life events.
In 71% of the movies watched by people between 25 and 54, protagonists were martial arts experts.
In 89% of the movies watched by people between 18 and 35, protagonists were men in their mid-twenties.
These are, on paper, perfectly fine characters. They are "what people want". Data proves it. This is why I say it's an insidious logic. Basing creative decisions on data is a dangerous game because it doesn't leave room for new ideas. Data doesn't show what people want, it shows what people have seen. So, copying ideas that were successful isn't necessarily smart. It's derivative and you're rolling the dice on whether or not the audiences you target are going to call you out on your bullshit.
Also, would market research have shown that:
- John Rambo's creative and unpredictable streak of violence is the reason why he became a cult hero?
- John Matrix' over-the-top one liners and defiance of narrative conventions, coupled with Arnold Schwarzenegger's deadpan delivery is why people love Commando?
- John McClane is relatable because mostly because he's a terrified cop in over his head and not necessarily because everything he touches explodes spectacularly?
No, it would've said something stupid like:
- 99% of the people between 18 and 44 enjoyed a movie better if the protagonist is a white man named John.
What makes a good character, let alone a good badass, is not quantifiable. It's not his leather jacket or his marine training or even the guns he uses. It's his/her way of being self-reliant and relatable at the same time. (S)he needs to be strong and vulnerable at the same time. And there's no recipe for that. It's something that needs to come organically. Think of Starlord in Guardians of the Galaxy: he was raised on a space pirate ship, making him extra-comfortable with violence, but he's longing the family that was robbed from him my his mother's illness. He's strong, cool, confident, but he's also vulnerable. He's well-written In movies and/or television, there's no substitute for good writing and that'll always be an element of risk.
Why is this important?
I had the idea for this piece after a discussion I had with my boss. He wanted me to change the way we presented a series of articles on the website and I argued it would screw the data. He said: "I don't care. We're tending to human beings first and foremost. And they don't care about data, they care about the now." Of course, he was right. We're not thinking responsibly about the data we leave behind, but it's being harvested every fucking day, whatever we do, however we interact with society.
Movies, big productions in particular, are quite possibly the most accessible form of entertainment. They are cheap, widely available and only take two hours of your time. This is why they inspire a lot of people. What you see on screen is a reflection of what you'll get in the future. Young people are going to grow up and be inspired by these movies like I was with eighties and nineties action classics. And yes, I do think they're inferior because they're trying to please too many people. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."