C'mon Hollywood: Build characters before franchises!
We toss around the term “character development” a lot. It’s used pretty much anytime we feel we didn’t get enough from a character in a film, be it back story, personality, charisma, redemption, etc.; something was simply missing. In some instances it’s more of our personal opinion that drives this feeling, but in others, piss poor character development is plain as day. Which brings us to THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 and GODZILLA, two films that have most recently fumbled this essential aspect of storytelling, either wasting precious time for the sake of building a franchise or simply forgetting to make their characters interesting enough to warrant their return to one.
I enjoyed THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 in the same way you would enjoy riding a roller coaster; fast, loud, out-of-control, and with some exciting moments, but ultimately a fleeting experience. I didn’t get to know Peter Parker; I didn’t feel like I was in his shoes or that I learned anything about him or his struggle and anytime they got close to that, I was deviated into a villain’s half-cooked story that never really went anywhere. The villain’s weren’t built on anything substantial that made me think there was a real dynamic going on. They just popped up so Spidey could have someone to fight, but never because it meant anything to the characters. Spider-Man had nothing invested in either Electro or Green Goblin (let alone The Rhino) that couldn’t be dismissed with a shoulder shrug. Their rivalry was the equivalent of bumping into someone in a bar.
For GODZILLA, we have a film that succeeds beautifully on so many levels, particularly with suspense, effects, sound design, as well as the best-looking GODZILLA we’ve seen to date. But, where they fail is in forcing a human connection that’s completely half-baked. Bryan Cranston is wasted, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is wooden, and Elizabeth Olsen’s role could vanish and nothing would have changed. Ken Watanabe’s role, essentially Mr. Exposition, is just as worthless. Here, we have a case of characters seemingly being interesting at first, but rarely rising to the occasion. They are all deadly serious with nary a thing particularly compelling, interesting, or mysterious about them. They are all on-the-surface placeholders. One is angry, one is determined, one is prophetic, one is scared, and so on. None of them show any of the things that make people particularly compelling. No humor, no secrets, no flaws, no charisma; they are there to do one job; they are all just reactionary characters. Now, it’s easy to say, “Well, this is a monster movie…it’s not about them,” but the problem is that we spend the first hour of the movie with them. GODZILLA is a monster movie populated with boring humans, minus Cranston, who deserved to have a much better arc than, “Yep, you were right. Now die.”
A lot of comparisons have been made to films like JURASSIC PARK or JAWS when it comes to the “slow burn” of getting to the monsters, while meeting the humans they’re terrorizing. However, like a bad horror movie, if you don’t care about who lives or dies, what’s the film really about? If it’s just cheap thrills, fine, but if you want more than that then it begins and ends with characters. The reason films like JURASSIC PARK and JAWS can get away with the same slow build to big monsters is because the characters were interesting, flawed, and memorable; they felt like real people with real challenges, even beyond what the obvious one is. There’s a reason many people are pissed that Ian Malcolm and Alan Grant aren’t showing up in JURASSIC WORLD; they are loved characters. Can you say the same about Aaron Taylor-Johnson in a GODZILLA sequel?
As for Spidey, the problem is that they abandoned Peter Parker’s journey for a very different one; a franchise universe. Instead of saying, “Let’s make the best Spider-Man movie we could ever make,” they said, “Let’s make the best Spider-Man movie that will lead to even more Spider-Man movies.” The two are not interchangeable. Admittedly, I really like Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man; He’s terrific, but the sequel is lost in a flurry of illogical ideas, a laundry list of teases to stories that haven’t even begun, and a step backwards into a story that we thought was already resolved. They left Peter Parker blowing in the breeze. He was little more than a pawn on the franchise chessboard.
So, how do you fix this? Well, you stop making movies in order to make sequels and start making movies that are about characters. Every film should toss in the kitchen sink when it comes to a complete, all-encompassing film, rather than a serialized effort of an endless saga. If you want to rip off Marvel’s model, you’d better do it right. Even the worst of their films still feels like a self-contained piece with a slight tease during the credits that you may or may not get depending on your nerd level. For a film that’s a potential franchise starter, the focus should be whether or not it’s good enough on its own before you start lining up the next one.
Every studio wants a franchise, but beginning with that end in mind is like shooting yourself in the foot. You have to make at least ONE good film, before you bankroll five more. If the characters are good enough and people care enough to see them again then you’ve earned your way to a franchise. But, even then, the focus should be about making the best possible film each and every time, sequels be damned. While I don’t think GODZILLA set out to “franchise” the human characters, it certainly left them interchangeable. Maybe that’s fine for GODZILLA, as most of us hope to see A LOT more of him in a sequel anyway, but for Spider-Man, it all hinges on the (super) human characters.
Not every film has to have a sequel. I know that defies the current Hollywood logic where nearly EVERY movie has to be primed for not only a follow up, but also a spinoff or prequel or the inevitable reboot. I get the business aspect of it. It’s not lost on me. But, that doesn’t excuse the sacrificial lamb of the whole mess; characters we actually give a shit about and would even want to see on the big screen again.