Monday, September 10, 2012

Why Sequels Usually Suck (Pirates of the Caribbean)

If you saw my Saturday post, then I’d like to let you know that I was wrong. Horribly, horribly, accidentally-went-on-a-ten-mile-hike-down-a-mountain-in-the-mud wrong. Fortunately for you, I caught a marathon of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies while whimpering in my hostel room.

Since I typically assume that all of you live on planet Earth (if not, hello!), I figure you all probably know what the PotC movies are about. As a quick refresher, there are these pirates, in the Caribbean, and they go on adventures with cursed gold and sea goddesses and far, far too much mythology for their own good. They’re fun, if not particularly intelligent, movies.

But if you’ve seen the movies at all, you can probably immediately raise a hand and say that the first one is far better than the others. Which it is. PotC: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a much better made movie than the three that follow. It has a clearer story, is better written, and has much more interesting characters.

“How can this be?!” I hear you shouting at your computer screens. “Aren’t the characters in the second two movies (at least) exactly the same as in the first?”

Well, yes and no.

We’re going to look at this with regards to Elizabeth, because she really shows it best, but it applies for all of the major returning characters. The problem with them in the later movies was pretty simple: inaptly applied character growth.

When we meet Elizabeth Swann in the first movie, she’s just a kid, but she’s already pretty cool. She’s obsessed with pirates, not easily scared, and kind of a klepto. When we meet her again as an adult, she’s still pretty cool. Still obsessed with pirates, still kind of a klepto. We giggle when she complains about the corset, sympathize when she wants to strangle Will, and genuinely like her for trying to save Jack. She’s a good character.

She doesn’t hit love, though, until the pirates invade and she keeps her cool. Despite being really obviously terrified, Elizabeth manages to fight off two pirates, hide, then parlay her way onto their ship and negotiate their surrender. Pretty freaking awesome for a love interest. She’s genuinely smart and pretty badass, but she’s got enough foibles that we still can appreciate her and root for her. That’s just good writing.

In fact, it’s much better writing than they used on Will. There’s a reason why most people cite Jack as the most memorable character, then Elizabeth, then Barbosa, then probably Norrington and the monkey, before even mentioning Will. He’s dull. And, more importantly, he’s badly written.

I’m going to espouse an unpopular theory here, but bear with me: I think Will is more interesting and likable in the later movies.

I know, right? Unthinkable.

But Will is really pretty awful in the first movie. He’s in love with Elizabeth. Name one other personality trait about him. Seriously. Anything. I will accept “daddy issues”, except he doesn’t, not really, it’s just a couple of protestations about his dad not being a pirate, etc. Nothing major or un-yawn worthy.

In the later movies, though, Will has goals and motivations and is in danger of becoming too complacent about his life. He has stakes. Yay for stakes!

Stakes are important. They are, basically, what the character has to lose if they fail. Elizabeth, in the first movie, has very high stakes. If she fails, she will die. There is literally nothing else to it. If she’s lucky, she’ll die before they rape her, but she’s definitely going to die. It’s pretty heavy for a kids’ movie.

Jack’s stakes aren’t nearly as high, but they are to him. If he fails, he has to keep living without his ship, something that he clearly views as horrible. If he fails he might die, but he might also keep living, and neither of those actually appeals to him much. So, as a character, he’s both interesting and motivated.

But Will’s stakes suck. If he fails, Elizabeth dies. Now, I know he loves her and all, but that’s not a very high stake when you come down to it. It’s not nearly as high as hers. Will’s low stake means that the writing needs to sell us on how awful it would be for him if this happened. We already know how awful it would be for Elizabeth. We need to know how bad he would have it. But, to be honest, we don’t really. He’s not with Elizabeth yet and doesn’t show any clear signs of trying to be. We get that he loves her, but would his life actually change very much if she weren’t in it?

Not really.

This situation reverses in the later movies. Now Will is the one with clear stakes (his life and soul), and Elizabeth is the one swanning around trying to save him.

I feel the need to point out now that I really generally like it when a girl is doing the saving. Honestly. I find it very pleasing when the usual gender dynamics are reversed, and a woman is swooping in to save the day.

Unfortunately, though, the writers of the PotC franchise aren’t good at writing those characters. Strangely enough, they seem to be much better at writing victims than saviors. But that’s a matter for another time.

Suffice it to say that while I adored Elizabeth in the first movie, I was utterly apathetic towards her in the rest of the series. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s even worse than hating her.

Elizabeth is cool under pressure. That’s one of her big drawing points. She’s quick on her feet, practical, and totally okay with using people’s feelings against them. Those aren’t all good traits, but they make her a compelling character to watch. When she manipulates Jack and Norrington to give her what she wants, or screams on seeing the demonic pirates for the first time, or gets pissy at Will for his utter incapability with emotions, we feel her pain. We relate to her because she has flaws. We love her because she uses those flaws to better herself. Rock on, girlfriend.

The problem in the later movies comes when her character’s flaws are taken away, and she isn’t given new ones. She’s leveled up with her fighting ability, and she has some cool moments, and oh my gosh now she’s a pirate queen! But none of this is meaningful to the viewer because Elizabeth’s lost her relatability. She’s boring now.

A lot of the problem with the later movies comes from the fact that they were clearly (really, really clearly) made very quickly in order to cash in on the success of the first one. And I don’t really begrudge the studio that. I’ve worked in Hollywood, and I know exactly how close to bankruptcy all of those studios run nearly all the time. A John Carter may not break Disney, but it’s certainly going to hurt it for a while.

When a movie like Pirates makes a buttload of money, making a sequel is actually the only sensible thing the studio can do. They have a surefire way to make more of that stuff that keeps them employed and able to make little artsy films that win Oscars. Yes please!

The issues come when the studio doesn’t fully understand what made the first movie popular. “You liked the explosions?” they seem to think. “Well the sequel will have fifteen times more explosions! So you’ll like it fifteen times as much!” This is an exaggeration, of course, and I don’t really think that studio executives are monkeys in suits. But they do fall into lazy thinking. Focus groups, pre-screenings, surveys, they all try to figure out what made the first movie so magical so they can recreate it in the sequels.

I’m going to let all you Hollywood types in on a secret: what made the first movie great probably wasn’t the explosions or the setting or the casting. It wasn’t made by the popular stars, the lens flare, or the multi-million dollar CGI. What made the first movie good was two little things: the story, and the characters. And you can’t have one without the other.

When you kept the same characters from Curse of the Black Pearl into the next two movies, you lost what actually made those characters interesting. In capitalizing on their perceived traits, you made them go from compelling and unique to bland and overstated. There is too much of a good thing, and Elizabeth and Jack are clear examples.

So if, in the first movie, you had a butt-kicking heroine with complex motivations and fabulous hair, in the second movie she’s an ass-kicking machine, with really outrageous hair and positively convoluted motivations. Too much of a good thing.

It’s not that I think there was no way to get Elizabeth Swann into the sequels. It’s that I think the way she was brought in was lazy and bad and she suffered for it.

Movies are not made by their special effects, their actors, or even their directors. Check out Pitch Black if you don’t believe me. That thing is low-budget, horribly shot, and features one guy you’ve heard of. But it’s awesome because the story is awesome. The story is awesome because the characters are awesome.

The Avengers was a better movie than all of its prequels, not because Disney sunk more money into it (though I’m reasonably sure they did), but because it was about people. Flawed, damaged people in terrible situations making difficult choices.

I guarantee you, that’ll win every time. 

"You like pain? Try wearing a corset!" Indeed.

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