Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Empire Strikes Back Fallacy: An Introduction

Posters from IMPAwards.com, as per usual
A recent announcement by Warner Bros. and DC got me thinking. Based on the success of THE DARK KNIGHT and the underperformance of SUPERMAN RETURNS, they’re going to try and apply the dark tones of the former to a kind of revamp of the Superman franchise. (They never actually said the word “reboot”, and there’s no word on whether or not Bryan Singer will still be involved.) I’m saddened by this in a way, as I think SUPERMAN RETURNS was utterly magnificent, but that’s on the record already. Instead I’d like to point out a concept I’ve been developing over time, looking at genre fiction, fandom, and media in general.

Now bear with me on this...
I call it The Empire Strikes Back Fallacy. Let’s break it down logically:

1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is the best/most well regarded of the STAR WARS films.

Granted, this is partly a matter of opinion, but the general consensus holds it up as the highest. It’s got the best RottenTomatoes score, the highest IMDB rating, and fans always think of it as the best.

2. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is the darkest of the STAR WARS films.

In regards to the original trilogy, this is close to objective fact, and though maybe REVENGE OF THE SITH is a little darker, it’s dark in a different way (and, in any case, the best/most well regarded of the prequel trilogy.)

3. Therefore, the darker a work is (or from the creator’s perspective, the darker we can make it), the better.

You see this put into play in most serial fiction, usually movie series but also in television and comics. Writers and directors love to talk about how this newest installment of the series is “the darkest yet” and how they’re ratcheting up the peril and the danger. Part of this seems to be for show- you always want to tell your audience that our heroes are in more danger now than they’ve ever been- but a lot of times they seem to believe it.

And the thing about it is, it almost seems true. A darker story is one with higher stakes, one where you can kill characters and hand the bad guys victories and genuinely make the audience uncertain how things will turn out. That’s got to be better than watching invincible protagonists inevitably triumph over their foes, right? You’re writing drama, why not make the drama as dramatic as possible?

Indeed, I would add a supporting argument to this fallacy, known as the STAR TREK: VOYAGER element. This spinoff of the popular franchise was particularly poorly regarded, because it had a fairly dramatic premise (a spaceship marooned far from home) but was plagued by cozy familiarity and lack of actual suspense. Just about everything got solved by the end of an episode, the main characters had script immunity up the wazoo, and things like food supply or keeping the ship working or everyone not going crazy seemed never to crop up. Nobody fought, even though a portion of the crew were actually members of a rebel faction in conflict with the Federation. They just forgot about it. It was a bit weak.

So why is this a fallacy? The first answer is that it doesn’t always work. SPIDER-MAN 3 attempted to take the series in a particularly grim direction, and though I enjoyed the film quite a bit (not sure about the grade I gave it, but I’ll have to see it again), generally people thought it had gone too far with the so-called “emo” material. (And I’ll take them at their word that it was emo, since I have a hard time recognizing it.) The attempts at bleakening things in the PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN sequels never felt quite right either, though obviously they did boffo business.

Not even video games are safe.

Most famously, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER had a really controversial sixth season in which just about everything bad happened to every character you could name. Buffy, back from the dead, suffered a near-suicidal ennui leading to a profoundly dysfunctional relationship with not-really-reformed vampire Spike, culminating in his attempting to rape her. Xander, fearful of his future, left Anya at the altar. Dawn struggled with kleptomania for some reason. Willow struggled with a perhaps-overly-literal addiction to magic, and went over to the dark side completely when her girlfriend Tara was murdered. A lot of fans were turned off by the sheer grimness and high melodrama, and much of the publicity for season seven emphasized that they were lightening up and going back to basics. I enjoyed season six, but they definitely went overboard. When you pile too much angst and horror on viewers, you risk making them feel detached- they don’t trust the storyteller anymore and they don’t want to risk being jerked around further.

This woman's husband was missing, presumed dead, and she didn't even brood.
There are also counterexamples. The TV series THE AVENGERS actually started in a dark place, with Dr. David Keel seeking vengeance for the death of his fiancee at the hands of drug runners, and working with a shadowy operative named John Steed to accomplish it. In following seasons, Steed, now the star, had a prickly relationship with partner Cathy Gale, and there was a lot of intrigue and distrust. However, what everyone remembers are the episodes in which Steed and the unflappable Emma Peel battle diabolical masterminds with bizarre schemes for money, power, and sometimes world domination. The main characters never seem like they’re in any true danger, and there’s so much humor and innuendo it makes James Bond look like one of Smiley’s people. Much of it is incredibly inconsequential in dramatic terms, but it’s undeniably fine television. More recently, and again on British TV, the reborn DOCTOR WHO is an upbeat, energetic, and joyful sci-fi adventure series which, though not averse to doing dark episodes, is never really bleak. Tragic things happen, but in carefully measured intervals.

But specific examples notwithstanding, what makes The Empire Strikes Back Fallacy a fallacy is that it’s too easy. It’s not really a great challenge to make a story darker, just as it’s not much of a challenge to make a story lighter. What is a challenge is finding the right tone for the story you are telling, and every television show, film series, book series, comic book, etc., has its own range. Moreover, you can’t be the darkest you can be all the time for the same reason that a rollercoaster can’t always go downhill; there have to be peaks and valleys, a rhythm that the audience can enter into. The reason that the ultra-dark BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is watchable and not an endless death march is because it has its up moments, as well as developments that aren’t so much “up” or “down” as they are just plain bizarre. Without those breaks in the tension, you wouldn't feel it when they really jam the knife in.

I’m not sure a “darker” Superman can’t work, but when you think about it SUPERMAN RETURNS was already a down movement from previous entries in the series, with a grimmer look, macabre humor, and Superman feeling alienated from the people he has sworn to protect. It’s possible to go darker, but it’s also a risk, and whoever ends up in charge of this is going to have to look closely at the precise tone they want. You can’t make a Superman film that feels like THE DARK KNIGHT and expect much of a positive response, after all.

It’s tempting to try and press as far as you can and spam the tragedy button in the fighting game that is dramatic writing, but eventually the audience will learn how to block. (Witness the backlash against Joss Whedon’s tendency to break up anything that looks like a happy relationship- I love the guy, but honestly, we can see it coming.) You must vary your attacks, and weave your moves together into a compelling and unpredictable pattern. I don’t think I can stretch that metaphor any further, but to conclude: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a great film NOT because it’s dark, but because that darkness helps throw the overall bright adventurous idealism of the STAR WARS series into relief, and ultimately affirm its values even after testing them. The darkness is there to advance the story and not for its own sake, and the true lesson to take is not that darker is better, but that the audience responds best when their guard is down.

Next week, I’ll use differential equations to explain why comparisons to video games do not work as film criticism. Unless I’m distracted by something shiny.

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