14 December 2007


When it comes to movies, I can be pretty picky. There are several factors I consider when deciding if a movie is good or not. If, after considering these factors, I decide a movie is good, then I'll see it again in the theater. If after this I still love the movie, I'll buy the DVD.

Currently, I have awarded seven movies "great" status by purchasing them.

This is the first in a series of posts explaining the criteria I use.

1. Competence. This is about characters doing things that make sense. When they do things that are obviously stupid, suspension of disbelief is hard to maintain. Tip: if the audience is screaming "NO! DON'T DO THAT!", the actor on screen is doing something incompetent.

Classic examples of this are: teenagers going off alone in a haunted house, bad guys explaining their entire plan to the good guys, and protagonists ignoring obvious warning signs that they are about to get shot in the back by a team member.

A common complaint about The Lord of the Rings movies is this: if Gandalf had huge eagles available to haul Frodo and Sam home from Mordor at the end of Return of the King, why not use said eagles in the first movie to drop the Ring into the lava in the first place?

Obviously because the movies wouldn't exist, but still.

Incompetence can come from both sides of the coin... though I often watch the bad guys more closely for signs of it, as it seems to be more frequently the antagonists who mess up. I prefer a movie where good triumphs over evil without evil tripping over its shoelaces.

An couple examples of bad-guy competence are found in Spiderman 2. In the scene where Doctor Octopus has kidnapped Aunt May and taken her up the building, there's a part where she sneaks up behind the villain and prepares to whack him with her umbrella.

Now, in a lesser movie, she would have successfully cracked him over the head and knocked him out, or at least distracted him enough to allow Spiderman to win the fight.

But no, Doc Ock sees it coming and easily brushes her aside with his robotic arms. No easy win for Spidey.


Later in the movie, Spiderman is fighting Doc Ock on a runaway train. After using the limits of his superhuman strength to stop the train from running off the tracks and killing everyone, Spidey passes out and is brought into one of the train cars by the passengers.

Dr. Octopus comes looking for our hero. In a display of courage often seen from the citizens of New York City, the train passengers form a barrier around Spiderman. "You want to get to him, you gotta go through me! " one of these brave souls declares.

Again, in a crappier film, these not-supernaturally enhanced people would defeat this supervillain and everyone would happy.

Instead, Dr. Octopus shrugs and physically crushes the passengers against the walls.

Simply fantastic.

The final example of bad-guy competence comes from The Bourne Ultimatum. On the off chance someone reading this hasn't seen the movie yet, I'll just reference the scene where Bourne is trying to save the life of the CIA-guy-turned-source in Madrid. The antagonist pulls off an excellent maneuver to trick Bourne and ultimately achieve his goal.

I guess the reason competence in film is so important to me is because I have an over-developed sense of fair play. Beating the other team in basketball is almost worthless if their best player is out with a broken arm. Winning a game of Uno because you stacked the deck before dealing is just lame. And if the good guys beat the bad guys because the bad guys screwed up multiple times, it hardly feels like a victory.

More factors to come. If you haven't seen Ultimatum yet, do it over the break. It's about to become the eighth movie I own.


Anonymous said...

**Spoiler warning for "Breakable"**

Such was the goal of the villian in "Breakable." He longed for an equal opponent, even going so far as to mentor Bruce until he was at the point that the villian felt satisfied he had met his match. They could never be equal in every respect because the villian was physically delicate while our hero was equally strong; our villian relied on his intelligence to make up for his lack of strength, suggesting the hero was lacking in that department by comparison. And yet, did they have a knock-down dragout fight? A battle of the wits? Not so much. Our hero just turned him in to the authorities. That was the most realistic ending a realistc movie about superheroes could have had, and yet people hated it. I've never understood that. Good triumphed, evil was put away, just not how we expected it.

This tangent aside, I agree that it's far more entertaining to watch an intelligent villian work his magic than a fool who blunders his way through the plot--no such blunderer would have gotten that far against our heroes unless our heroes were equally daft. And who wants to root for imbeciles?

Stu said...

Out of curiosity... what are the seven movies you have already purchased this year? Are they all films that were in theaters in the last year or so? (Or have I just missed a previous post that explains everything I wanted to know)

Brandon said...

You make a interesting point, anonymous. The ending to Unbreakable was certainly realistic.

But what I had a problem with was how Sam's character spent so much time mentoring Bruce in the first place. Why on earth would he do that? The result was that he ends up in prison.

It's insane. And insane bad guys aren't usually very competent.

Stu, here are the movies on my list:

The Incredibles
Batman Begins
The Emporer's New Groove
(doesn't really fit the "competent bad guy" profile, I know)
Pirates of the Caribbean 1
Spiderman 2
The Bourne Ultimatum

I'd also add X-men 2 to the list.

Anonymous said...

Why would he do it? I suppose to have that "fair fight" you were talking about. It was no fun to be a villian when it was so easy to get away with it. Unfortunately for him, he underestimated our hero's response to the revelation of who he actually was.

Brandon said...

Exactly. What kind of bad guy seeks a "fair fight"? If I thought myself a superevil bad guy, I wouldn't want to fight someone who could beat me.

There's a lot of stuff to do that would be a lot more fun.

Anonymous said...

Well, that was his flaw then. There you go. He was so enamored with the lore and legend of comic books that he believed he could recreate that magic in reality only to find that it doesn't translate as well as he'd hoped.

Fortunately for mankind, every villian is more than flawed. The very definition of a villian is imperfection. Hence, they lose.

Stu said...

Ironically, I would argue that it translated exactly as one would expect it to. (Personally I thought Breakable was "meh", but I kinda dig the story idea).

If he was truly attempting to recreate a comic book "epic" then he would have know (or at least, should have known) that he was doomed from the start. I don't know many comics where the bad guys win in the end.

I just remember being disappointed by the movie... maybe I'll have to go back and watch it again sometime. I have a different appreciation of comic books now.

Anonymous said...

Thought this would be interesting to add to the discussion on villians: http://www.moviefone.com/insidemovies/2008/07/10/best-movie-villain/