By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
We’ve been doing a series on what’s good in mass media. In the last two articles I talked about smarter television. In this, the last piece of the series, let’s look at how film is also getting smarter.
Film has increased in its complexity by giving us more characters to focus on. The Little Mermaid gave us one heroic princess, her love interest prince, one villain, and a handful of sidekicks. Frozen gave us two princess heroines (one of whom spends some of her time in the role of a villain without quite knowing it), two villains (a major and minor one—and the major one fools us into thinking he’s not a villain for most of the movie), two possible love interests, and its own set of sidekicks.
Ocean’s Eleven didn’t just challenge our minds because of the sneakiness and craft of the heroes but because there were so many of them. We nevertheless loved it enough that they added more characters to its sequels, even including both villains from the first two movies in the third.
If the great movie trilogy of the 20th Century was Star Wars, then the great trilogy of this century (so far) has been The Lord of the Rings. While Star Wars gave us Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Obi-Wan, and two droids for heroes (with Lando coming along eventually), The Lord of the Rings gave us four hobbits, three elves, a dwarf, a wizard, and a half dozen or more humans as heroes—that’s 15 or 16 main characters to follow!
Our movies are generally getting more complex, and we like it that way.
More Plot Threads
As we get more characters, we get more plotlines to follow. The trilogies are, again, a good example. In the original Star Wars a single plot thread centered around Luke Skywalker: get the Death Star blueprints to the Rebellion. In The Empire Strikes Back, we get two plot threads: Luke and Yoda are on Dagobah while Han, Leia, and Chewbacca are running from Darth Vader. Then in Return of the Jedi, a moment at the end has three plot threads: the Rebel Fleet, the forest moon, and Luke and Vader.
In The Lord of the Rings trilogy we get several story lines among the following grouped characters: Gandalf with others or alone; Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry; just Pippin and Merry (and sometimes Treebeard); Aragorn and Arwen; Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas; Frodo and Sam (with and without Gollum); and I’d better stop here before I bore you with a long list of names. Besides these, I counted 15 other relational plot threads in the films (and I probably missed some).
Again, we apparently like the complexity.
Cross Film Tie-Ins
A recent trend in this movement toward more complex movies has been the practice of tying films together with other films and TV.
It began with the first Iron Man movie, which ended with Nick Fury telling Tony Stark about the “Avenger’s Initiative.” Five movies later, multiple characters which had been already developed in previous films (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, and more) were brought together in The Avengers, an immensely successful film which managed to hold an ensemble cast together without dragging its feet or emphasizing one character above the rest.
Marvel Studios didn’t stop there, but kept the series going with more movies and a TV tie-in series called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. On the Tuesday before the second Captain America movie was released, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. included a scene from that movie. And on the Tuesday after Captain America: The Winter Soldier released, the plot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. changed radically to reflect what had happened in the film.
In May of this year, another superhero franchise achieved a monumental tie-in through the movie X-Men: Days of Future Past. Not only were plot threads from six previous movies tied together, but so were two different X-Men movie casts (younger and older versions of the same characters played by different actors). Much of this film’s meaning was to be found only by those who had spent more than a decade keeping up with the stories in all the previous movies.
This cross-pollinating method of plot development appears to be so successful that it is likely to become an industry standard. The sheer difficulty of what it will take for writers and audiences to process these complex plot systems is proof that it’s not all bad right now in the world of mass media.