Movies are complex. Even boring formulaic movies still require serious effort and craftsmanship. Even mindless summer blockbusters often employ hundreds if not thousands of specialists to create the images and sounds we experience on screen.
Blockbusters receive much criticism for their bland conventionality and unwillingness to push boundaries, rehashing the same old plots and same predictable Hollywood endings. But despite the unfortunate reality behind these accusations, successful blockbusters tend to express more creativity than which they are usually credited.
There is no easily repeatable formula for these massive films. They are not based off of the Hero’s Journey or the Syd Field method or the Three/Four/Five act structures. These are not intended as recipes for a rousing blockbuster success. They are story principles, not secret formulas.
What makes stories interesting is that they present us with a fresh perspective on life. They offer us one possible future, not all possible futures neatly packaged into one monomyth. A story is what happens when one character acts a certain way in a certain situation. That particular narrative may or may not have ramifications for analogous situations elsewhere but it is silly to pretend it is the story of everyone everywhere.
Just because stories share some narrative similarities and structural components does not mean they are the same boring story. Details matter. Stories are infinite in their potential complexity and creative expression, yet not all stories are good stories. Such a story by definition breaks from the formula.
However blockbusters aren’t blessed with this privilege. They are considered a low cultural form entertainment unlike serialized television or auteur-driven art films. Blockbusters don’t win awards, they generate profit. They don’t make you feel smarter at parties, they sell toys. They are an unrefined art form. And they are all the same.
In his book Do the Work, Stephen Pressfield briefly mentions a trick that screenwriters use to sell screenplays. That is, how to reduce your story to its bare essentials and then fill in the gaps later. He presents four selling points:
1) a killer opening
2) two major set pieces in the middle
3) a killer climax
4) a concise statement of theme
At first glance this seems like a very accurate way to summarize the structure of most summer blockbusters. Virtually every big action movie shows off those three or four massive set pieces in the trailers which in turn will provide the major action and conflict of the movie itself.
But that structure – killer opening, two massive set pieces, killer climax – is not a story. It’s a skeleton. And it’s not even a necessary or desirable skeleton. But nevertheless it’s a popular one. Such a clear and defined structure gives audiences something tangible to expect from their ticket price: a set amount of big budget thrills evenly distributed across two or so hours. It may be utterly predictable but in theory it seems to work.
Are blockbusters that simple or are they much more complex?
How reducible are these giant stories played out on the big screen?
Let’s examine some of the biggest baddest blockbusters of the past few years and see if and how this formula applies.
During this investigation I also want to introduce the namesake and central theory of this blog, the story punch. This theory posits that every meaningful story has a story punch: a defining moment that summarizes and elaborates on the primary message of the story. This is the moment or scene that carries the strongest emotional punch. The one that makes your eyes mist up. The one that makes you feel. It’s the moment that you realize that is not just someone else’s story, it might in some way, small or big, also be your story.
Movies usually only have one story punch. And this is what the movie is all about (or at least, what it is trying to be about). Perhaps a movie can have more than one, but usually it’s just one. I will elaborate on this point in a future article.
In this series I will apply Pressfield’s four simple points and then draw a conclusion on whether the blockbuster fits this simple mold. Along the way, we’ll also be looking at the story punch of each film. Since a concise statement of theme is harder to pin down than set pieces, I’ll give my broad interpretation of the theme in the form of a question. As always, there are many many spoilers for these films so please watch first and read later.