Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.
As a huge fan of action movies, hear me now and believe me later in the week: the Era of Epic Explosions is over.
Stick a fork it in.
It’s kaput. Done. Dead and buried.
X-MEN: OSCAR ISAAC WEARING 30 POUNDS OF MAKEUP is only the latest nail in the cinematic coffin, though it’s a nail that cost more than the domestic product of Paraguay.
Now, I liked the movie more than I expected after all those bad reviews. HOWEVER: the big action set pieces where the villain started destroying the world?
Big shrug. Didn’t care.
Here’s why explosions were once movie magic and now make people sneakily check Twitter on their magical phones.
Way back, only the biggest productions could afford to blow things up.
Those same movies also had the best directors, best actors and biggest budgets.
Meanwhile, B movies had incredibly cheesy explosions and effects that looked like Ed, president of the AV club, cooked them up on his Macintosh during a long weekend fueled by two-liter bottles of Orange Crush and two over-sized bags of Cheeto’s, which should be spelled Cheetoh’s but isn’t. Not sure why.
This is why the following compilation of great movie explosions skews toward old action movies. Because they actually blew things up, using real explosives, instead of spending millions of dollars on fake pixels.
In the Golden Age of Things Going Boom in the Movies, directors and producers had much smaller budgets, which meant you couldn’t have things explode on screen every two minutes.
You had to (a) find an abandoned building that fit your script, (b) file permits with the city for permission to blow it up and (c) hire professional people to blow them up on time and on schedule, while cameras rolled.
If the things went wrong, you were out millions of dollars and needed to find a new abandoned building.
Therefore, action movies of yore couldn’t go overboard with fire, smoke and debris. They had to use explosions when it mattered most.
This was a good thing, for movie budgets and for people sitting in dark rooms while they munched on overpriced kernels of exploded corn.
It was epic when Bruce Willis sent the office chair down the elevator shaft in DIE HARD.
And I be you can remember the first time you saw the Death Star explode in STAR WARS. (The second and third times, not so much.)
Directors making movies today grew up watching those cool, big-budget movies with amazing explosions. Even if they’re working on a cheesy TV show, now they can afford to blow up anything they want, as big as they want.
So yeah, they do it.
All. The. Time.
It goes deeper: people making fan movies or YouTube parodies have the technology to blow up New York City, the West Coast or the entire solar system, if they’re truly ambitious. Check out the insanely detailed fan-made movies about Star Wars with excellent lightsaber effects. Amazing.
With giant budgets and armies of CGI people, it’s insanely easy these days to spice up a bad scene with explosions. Except it’s used so often, it’s a cliché.
Michael Bay has created an entire career out of blowing things up in slow motion. Here’s a montage:
Audiences today grew up watching real explosions in action movies. We know what they look like.
Even big movies with big budgets struggle to get CGI right.
When you know it’s fake, you don’t care.
It’s a staple of every action movie, comic-book movie or thriller that (a) the Bad Guy Wants to Destroy the World and (b) the Bad Guy Gets to Start Blowing Up the World because (c) it wouldn’t be any fun if the audience didn’t get to see six blocks of Manhattan get demolished for the 2,874th time.
The old rule of storytelling was to always, always raise the stakes. If saving your wife and daughter from terrorists was good, then saving an entire city from a stolen nuclear warhead was better and stopping a villain from destroying Earth had to be the ultimate.
Except we expect this now. We’re numb to it.
And audiences know how it ends. The villain never, ever gets to truly destroy Gotham, New York City or the Earth.
The dice are loaded. The villain is going to lose.
Which means there’s zero suspense.
Oh, we’ll get a little look at the Big Bad Guy stomping on a few blocks, or a glimpse of how his doomsday device will flatten New Zealand, but no, the villain never gets to actually win.
So as I sat there watching the X-Men head off to stop Apocalypse from destroying civilization, what should have been the most exciting part of the movie had zero thrills whatsoever.
Because you knew the villain would lose. No question.
This is part of the reason why CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR worked so well. The story is smaller and the stakes are lower. The villain isn’t trying to destroy the third rock from the sun. He’s simply trying to get revenge by turning the Avengers against each other. Yet you care far more about CIVIL WAR than BATMAN VS SUPES or X-MEN: COME SEE WOLVERINE FOR TWO MINUTES. And the reason why is simple: audience will always, always care more about living, breathing characters than bits of concrete and rebar.
TL;DR: Blowing up things isn’t shocking or thrilling anymore, not when it’s CGI pixel nonsense. Also: Villains with evil plans to destroy Gotham, D.C. or Earth never get to actually do it, so stop making that the plot of every action thriller and comic book movie.
Bonus video: Expectation vs reality – action movies
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.