What Makes A Great Villain?

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To listen to the audio version of this article, download Episode 13 of the Story Punch podcast. This article is a heavily expanded version of an older Story Punch article.

A hero is only as interesting as their primary villain. Why is that? I think it is because a good villain is the litmus test for any aspiring hero. If you stop to think about it, heroes are a reactionary force. It’s in their nature. They see evil and they step in to stop it. But it is always the villain that drives the plot forward. The villain comes up with their plan and the hero struggles to prevent it from happening. The villains acts, the hero reacts.

In many stories, the villain is the protagonist moving things forward while the hero is an antagonist trying to slow things down. But this creates a problem.

If you don’t have a compelling villain, you probably won’t have a compelling story. If you mess up this part, if there is no real threat, if all you have is an ineffective toothless villain, nothing the hero does will matter anyway.

This is perhaps the biggest problem we see in comic book movies today. The villains are blandly evil, predictably stupid, and never feel like a real threat. They are simply another hurdle to climb when they should be an impenetrable wall. They should be not just evil, but cruel. Not just menacing, but calculating. The villain should not simply oppose the hero, they should oppose everything the hero stands for by offering an alternative perspective on the world.

THEIR PLAN SHOULD ACTUALLY MAKE SENSE FROM A WARPED PERSPECTIVE

A good villain is thorough, logical, precise. They know when to strike and where it will hurt the most. They not only have a goal, but they know the best way to accomplish it. But not only that, they somehow represent different shades of evil. Not just one generic kind of evil, but a multifaceted complicated evil. If you’re too evil, you’re just a monster. But the best kind of villains are the ones that actually have a deeper moral purpose behind what they are doing.

They think what they are doing is reasonable, necessary, and justifiable. Their actions are logical, even if it is a rather twisted logic. But at some point, you should have to stop and think, wait what if the villain is right? What if this is the only way? Part of the hero’s journey should include a point where they actually wonder if the villain is right. Maybe their plan isn’t all bad and could even result in some good. Even though ultimately we might reject their methods, the villain should still make a really good point about the world and the way it works.

zodLet’s pick apart one example, General Zod from Man of Steel. Some parts of Zod’s character work pretty well, but other parts don’t at all. Zod has a mission to protect Krypton. It is his guiding force and under normal circumstances, we would agree. That’s a good mission. Protect your race. Save your people. But instead of keeping Zod in between good and evil, he immediatley falls into the villain camp right away. Unfortunately, I don’t think Zod quite passes the great villain test. How can I possibly sympathize with a villain who cherishes his people dearly, offers an olive branch to Kal-El, and at the same time is happy to wipe out another planet of people in the process of rebuilding his own? As one of the few survivors of a planet that was wiped out, how could he not see that he is duplicating the same pain and suffering he has himself experienced?

He does everything “for his people” but he will kill all the humans in the process? It feels inconsistent. It’s a strange mix of compassion and psychotic ruthlessness that doesn’t quite work. When Zod’s terraforming plan is defeated, instead surrendering or figuring out some other way to deal with it, Zod goes on a rampage targeting innocent civilians. He’s like the bully at school who beats up smaller kids just because he can’t get what he wants. It is warrior DNA? Is it is a psychotic break? I couldn’t tell you.

But let’s imagine a scenario where Zod was on the same team as Jor-El back on Krypton. They work together as colleagues and friends to try to save Krypton, but ultimately fail. Instead of Zod leading a military coup he watches his people be wiped out because he didn’t try hard enough. He showed too much restraint before. So the next time he has the chance he is doubly motivated. To do what he and Jor-El couldn’t the first time but this time by any means necessary. When I close my eyes I see a Zod who is a tragic figure, a man who has lost everything, and is trying to make up for his past failures.

His plan needs to make sense. It can’t be just convenient to destroy Earth in the process. There has to be a logical reason. The Kryptonians made a big deal over the fact that they did not possess a sense of morality and it gave them an evolutionary advantage. But that is dumb. Morality and caring for others is an advantage, one specifically shared by all mammals who raise their young. We are better off together.

I want to see a General Zod who sees the problems on earth and decides that they are the same things that led to the destruction on Krypton. Instead of having Zod bring genocide, he should bring a global dictatorship. An universal vision for peace and harmony. He doesn’t want to destroy everybody. He wants to rule them because he doesn’t think they are able to.

Humans would never agree with terraforming the planet for Krypton and wiping out us in the process. But they might go for world peace. A vaccine that can cure cancer. Renewable clean energy. They might even sell their planet to Zod for unlimited data and faster wifi. Who knows?

Of course a global dictatorship would not be easy or ethical. Superman would have plenty of reason to prevent Zod from forcing the whole world until his control. There is still a way to get lots of drama and turn Zod into a true villain. But destroying the human race right off the bat? It’s just not logical or sympathetic. It turns Zod into an angry genocidal psychopath.

That’s not a great villain. That’s a shortcut.

kobaOne of the best villains in recent memory is Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Now here is a villain whose plan makes perfect sense. In fact, Caesar, the leader of the apes, is actually far too trusting of the humans and if it were up to him alone, his people might have been wiped out in a surprise attack.

Koba does not trust the humans. He firmly believes that Caesar is endangering the whole colony by working with the humans. But the thing is, Koba is right. The humans are pretty dangerous and untrustworthy. They have a stockpile of machine guns, tanks, rocket launcers, and they are ready to strike.

Yet Koba is still the villain. Why? Because of his methods. He tries to assassinate Caesar. He starts a war on the humans. He locks up any apes that disagree with him. And he executes anyone who stand in his way.

Even though war was a possibility, it was never inevitable. Koba took matters into his own hands and compromised the most sacred values of the apes. Apes do not kill other apes. That is what separates them from the rest of the animals. Those moral principles. And Koba violated them.

Was he right about the humans? Yes. Was he right about how he went about dealing with them? No. He became jealous of Caesar, he turned against him, and betrayed everything that the apes stand for. But he had really good logical reasons that in a twisted way makes really good sense. In some alternative universe where things were just a little bit different, Koba could have been right. His reasons were sound, but his methods were way off. He went too far.

A VILLAIN SHOULD BE MYSTERIOUS BUT NOT A MYSTERY

A villain should never be a total mystery, but we also don’t need to know everything about them. Darth Maul is a total mystery, but it’s too much mystery. He has that double-bladed lightsaber, facial tatoos, and a black trenchcoat, but who is he? We don’t know. But what does he want? To rule the universe? To scare little kids

The thing is, a mystery cannot also be a character. To be a fully rounded character, we need to know their motivations, aspirations, desires, needs, flaws, and a sense of their personality. They have to have quirks. But a shadowy figured mired in shadows moving silently in the shadows behind more shadows? That’s not a character, that’s a mystery.

On the flipside, we don’t want to know too much. Nobody wants a prequel trilogy explaining how the villain became a villain.

Think about Koba. We know from the first Planet of the Apes movie that he was a lab animal who underwent some pretty gruesome experiments. But in the second movie, do they go ahead and explain his life history and how he was born a cute little chimp baby and how the humans beat that innocent out of him? Nope, the only information we get is when he points to his scars and says, “Human work.” He has seen a lot of cruelty from the humans but we don’t need to know what it is When it comes to villains, their backstory is best left to the imagination

On the blog Overthinking It, Ben Adams has a great article called The Banality of Evil Origin Stories. In it he talks about why most villain origin stories simply don’t work:

In the end, most of these stories are simply unconvincing. For an implacable and unabashedly evil evil villain, it almost impossible to create a origin story that both a) makes the audience empathize with the future villain and b) portrays a convincing transformation. In Episode III, Anakin jumps pretty much straight from “arrogant but still good Jedi” to “murdering children in cold blood.

And he’s totally right. In Episode III, Anakin goes from being a pretentious brat who is mad about not being on the Jedi Council to helping wipe out the Jedi in exchange for the power to bring people back to life. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t even get that power. Trying to make a great villain like Darth Vader sympathetic doesn’t work because you can’t explain that kind of evil in a satisfying way. Evil is elusive, unpredictable, hard to define.

Villains are evil but we don’t need to know exactly how they got that way. You can hint at it, suggest some possible factors that helped cause it, but you can never explain it.

fiskOne of the greatest villains of the modern superhero age is from the tv show Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is a man trying to save Hell’s Kitchen by first tearing it down to the ground first. He doesn’t even think he is a villain. He thinks he is doing what is right. That he is the hero saving the city and that the only way to rebuild it is to start over. There is one episode that give us insight into Fisk’s past and it centers around a defining moment from his childhood. When Fisk was a boy, his rage got out of control and he brutally attacked someone close to him. It’s a shocking scene and it goes a long way to let us know how Fisk ended up how he is, but don’t mistake this short glimpse into his childhood for what it is not. It is not his full backstory. It one crucial turning point in his life. But it does not try to explain everything. The truth is we have no idea how Wilson Fisk went from a kid who committed a terrible crime to the head of a powerful criminal organization. We don’t know how he learned to throw a punch or how he can stand toe-to-toe with Daredevil. How did he get to the top and what did he do to get there? It’s a mystery. And we the audience don’t need to know all his secrets. He is menacing, his name is not to be spoken, and he might snap at any moment, and that is enough. If Daredevil were to explain exactly how he became the man he is, it would take away his claws. It would overly humanize him. Fisk is a terrible foe to reckon with and we will never know exactly how it happened.

But perhaps the best villain of the last decade is universally acknowledged to be Heath Ledger’s Joker. and there is a similar mystery surrounding the villain of The Dark Knight. While the 1989 Batman movie went out of its way to show the Joker murdering Batman’s parents and falling into a vat of chemicals that transformed him into maniacal clown, the modern Joker has conflicting backstories all revolving around his scars. They are gruesome accounts, making the line, “Why So Serious?” both memorable and morbid at the same time. But the point of them is that they keep Joker’s real history in the dark. Was Joker tortured as a child? Was he married once? Are these real or are they just the ravings of a lunatic? We’ll never know. We just know that the Joker cannot be reasoned with. He can’t be bought off. He cannot be tamed or rehabilitated. Whatever he once was, that is now gone. As Ben Adams points out, his backstory is contradictory because it is not necessary. It would actually hurt the character’s intrigue and appeal if we knew where he came from.

Villains should be fully fleshed out in their motivations and identities, but we don’t want to know all the details of how they came to be. Some things should remain forever a secret.

VILLAINS SHOULD EXIST WITHIN A LARGER MORAL UNIVERSE

Villains are evil, but evil can also be relative. The best villains are not unstoppable forces of destruction. That is too much like a force of nature. No one blames the hurricane for being a hurricane. Villains are evil but they exist within a much larger moral universe. And a good villain doesn’t have to be the most evil thing around. Because on some level, we actually do want to root for our villains to succeed sometimes. Villains are not just plot points and obstacles for the heroes to overcome. They are characters. They have their own motivations. And at least some of the time, we want to see them succeed.

The best way I can explain is this is through the concept of the anti-hero. Which is a pretty close analogy for what we are looking for in our villains.

Anti-heroes are interesting. Take for example the Wild West. Out there on the frontier there are no good guys. There are just shades of grey. You have bad guys and you have helpless victims. And then along comes the anti-hero. Think of Clint Eastwood in a green poncho. You wouldn’t want to hang out with these guys. But when your town is being overrun by bandits and oil barons, he is the best you’re going to get. Sometimes working with somebody bad is better than falling into the hands of somebody evil.

The same principle can apply to villains. Just like anti-heroes, a good villain is not necessarily a good person. But you can create sympathy for them if you can show the villain to the best worst option in a terrible situation. The villain is still bad, but at least they might be more cunning and more principled that the other scum around them.

cobblepotA great recent example of this is Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin, from the television show Gotham. Cobblepot is a ruthless sadistic guy. He is horrible. He is brutal serial killer. He doesn’t mind killing just to get a pair of clean clothes. But we never fully turn against Cobblepot because he is at the bottom of the totem pole. All the other criminals in Gotham treat Cobblepot like dirt. He gets pushed around, underestimated, and routinely humiliated. He is still a bloodthirsty murderer, but somehow, I don’t know why, we still feel for him because of how badly he gets treated.

When a villain gets treated unfairly, when a villain is up against even worse criminals, when they have a determination and resolve in the face of adversity, it helps the audience stick with them and want to believe in them, even if they still have some major reservations about it. Anti-heroes make the best out of bad circumstances and so the audience is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is the same thing when it comes to villains. Remind us that this villain exists in a world with even worse people, unscrupulous traitors with no morals at all. Maybe the villain will only kill if it helps further their plan and they will let the hero go if they think it might help them out later. Maybe the hero and villain can work together to prevent an even bigger threat that goes against the villain’s interests. It might not be much a difference, but humanizing the villain just a little bit cann go a long way. The villain is still bad, but the criminal underworld out around them might be even worse.

To the extent that it is narratively possible, contextualize the villain. Make their evil plan just a bit more reasonable and less bloodthirsty than the other options out there. Give us a scenario when the smart thing is to work with the villain temporarily to prevent an even greater disaster.

Wow, I think I just turned evil for a second. Snap out of it.

VILLAIN SHOULD PROVIDE A REAL THREAT

Something about a villain should strike fear into people. There are far too many villains out there that don’t have this primal essence to them. They are just stock bad buys with no spine to them. But a real villain is in control. They command the room with their presence. I guess you would say they provide good management of their employees. Just as a good CEO inspires confidence, a good villain inspires fear. Fear that you will be punished. That everyone you love will be taken away from you. That you cannot escape their grasp if you betray them.

baneThere’s a great moment in the movie The Dark Knight Rises involving Bane, a brutal mercenary who has taken over Gotham City. Although he is highly intelligent like many of Batman’s villains, Bane possesses a sheer physicality to him that makes him quite a formidable foe. Bane moves fast and hits hard. He’s got a creepy mask. He is a scary guy. But my favorite Bane moment showcases one of his more villainous qualities: he is just plain intimidating. In the film John Daggett, a corrupt businessman who hired Bane is chewing him out for not delivering him control of Wayne Enterprises as promised. Daggett tells Bane, I’m in charge, to which Bane simply puts his hand on his shoulder with his palm open and says, Do you feel in charge? It’s such a simple move. He just puts his hand on his shoulder. And as he continues talking. But as he keeps talking, he slowly moves his hand against Daggetts’ face, then his neck, and by the end of their conversation Bane has got Dagget’s whole head. We hear the sounds as Bane kills Daggett offscreen. At the beginning of the conversation Daggett thought he was in control but by the end of the scene the truth has come out.

Bane is not just physically intimidating, he’s also psychologically intimidating. Just by putting his hand on you he is reminding you that yes he can do whatever he wants. And if he wanted to he could squeeze you like a soda can.

A villain who runs around punching people or showing off their karate skills is never as scary as a villain who looks you in the eye and reminds you how powerful they are. Usually the threat of violence is just as scary as actual violence. A great villains always manage to stay in control by reminding those around them of what they are capable of.

While a villain should be able to rule through intimidation alone, but it’s also good to show they mean business. They can rule from their shadows, but their handiwork should also come out into the light.

It’s not enough for Darth Vader to threaten to blow up your planet. He has to be willing to actually fire up the Death Star and prove his point sometimes. The villain should be menacing but also follow through with actionable behaviors.

But to be truly threatening, it’s not enough for them to simply do bad stuff. They should be very precise in what they do. The best villains are able to get inside the protagonist’s heads. To mess with them. They know things about the protagonist that the protagonist is only vaguely aware of. Great villains can read their enemies like a book. They know how to manipulate the hero and exploit their flaws. And this is the part that makes them scary. Not the fact that they can hurt you, but that they know how and where can hurt you the most. They know how to get what they want. To turn the hero against himself

VILLAINS ALSO HAVE A WEAK SPOT

But villains also have a weakness. Usually it is a moral one. They are greedy. They are too proud to admit their mistakes. They overstep their bounds. They get the upper hand but they press their advantage too far.

Villains have a fundamental flaw. They will always eventually lose because of their internal character. They don’t know how to win even when they have all the cards because something about them is broken inside.

Villains take something good about humanity and they twist it. Villains are fascinating because there is something clearly off about them. It is not just that they are evil and bad. There is something about them that is admirable.

They are often eloquent speakers. They have great leadership ability. They usually highly intelligent. Oftentimes they are visionaries, they are ahead of their time.

But whatever was once good about them has now become twisted beyond recognition. Every villain has the same basic problem. They wanted something good but they wanted it too badly and it corrupted their soul.

And that’s why the hero will always defeat them. Because the race does not belong to the strong, nor the wise, nor the powerful. Evil is quite tiring. Twisting everything around you is exhausting. But doing the right thing, doing good, becomes its own reward. When you chase after good, you become stronger. But by the time the villain figures that out, it’s always too little too late.

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Inside Out and the Purpose of Sadness

  
Total Spoilers for Inside Out ahead!

Pixar’s latest is curiously simple in its execution. The main plot revolves around a pair of personified emotions, Joy and Sadness, as they wander through the collapsing mental world of an 11 year old girl. While the actual locations of their journey are rather disposable, a dream production studio here and an abstract thought void there, what drives the deeper story is how all the events happening in the cartoonish world of the mind affects the little girl in turmoil.

While the always bubbly Joy is the protagonist of the film, the setting (and stakes) are firmly centered on Riley and her heartrending move from the warm feels of Minnesota to the discomforting strangeness of San Francisco. And Joy, the leader and cheerleader of Riley’s emotions, finally hits a wall finding herself unable to keep Riley happy in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and loss.

At the beginning of the film, Joy introduces each emotion and explains their purpose. However she cannot think of a reason or function for Sadness. Her whole role, she believes, is to shut out any sad feelings and create only happy memories for Riley. It is these continually happy days that preserve Riley’s personality islands which Joy has worked so hard to build and maintain.

In one of the film’s more inspired decisions, Riley’s memories are revealed to be flowing spheres that roll into place and light up with whatever color emotion they represent. There is something quite satisfying how a happy moment leads to a new yellow ball or a sad moment brings a rolling blue ball. My two year old decided they were Easter Eggs.

Memories are such intangible things. Feelings are such fleeting things. Animating them with weight and mass gives them legitimacy. It shows us that what is going on inside us is real, important, and valid.

What is most touching about the film is how it tries to show an honest portrayal of what it looks like to possess a human mind, a mysterious web of connections inside our brain that confounds even those who study it. Is it really possible for someone with emotions to ever fully understand emotions?

I found myself in the days after the film getting angry, feeling sad, and finding joy. I can see the little buttons going off in my head seemingly controlled by tiny forces outside of my jurisdiction. I also see it in my family, often quite hilariously.

The finale is the right kind of ending for such an ambitious idea like this. It has a message and one that is not easy to learn or apply. Joy accepts that she cannot simply force Riley to be happy but that she needs to let her grieve the loss of her Minnesota childhood. Things will never be the same. Her pure childlike joy cannot be recreated as it once was. She is growing up, maturing, and realizing that life is more complicated than she once thought.

Uninterrupted joy is no longer possible. And sadness is not something that can be suppressed and avoided. Joy begins to remember that Riley’s happiest moments were often preceded first by sadness. There is a purpose for sadness. It allows us to let go of things we can’t hold onto. It helps break down the islands that we used to rely on that are no longer stable so that we can build new ones. And most of all sadness makes us vulnerable and dependent on others, bringing us closer to other people in a way that happiness alone never can.

Inside Out is painfully honest in its approach, reminding us that life is not made up of Goofball Islands and instead laden with unexpected mixtures of both joy and sadness, anger and disgust, fear and other moments forgotten along the way.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Riley’s mind to accept is the deep sense of loss that her transformation from child to adult takes on her imagination. This is represented best by the breakout character Bing Bong, her imaginary friend whose flying rainbow wagon have long since been ignored.

When Bing Bong faded away disappearing into oblivion, my daughter looked up at me and asked worriedly, “Where did he go?” She is too young to understand the complicated mechanics of memories or the narrative device of the heroic sacrifice, but she was concerned just the same wondering if Bing Bong was okay, if he was going to come back. I replied with the only words I could think of that would make sense to her little mind. “He went bye bye.”

Borassic World

If you liked Jurassic World, feel free to stop reading right now. Films are a very subjective experience and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But from here on out, I’m going to present an almost entirely negative review of what I found to be a non-terrific and terribly boring movie. If reading something like this will diminish your enjoyment of the film, you have been warned.

Also, many spoilers ahead.

The only real problem I have with Jurassic World is that I did not enjoy it. I thought it was boring. And I don’t mean that in a purely logical or analytical way. I mean that I was literally taken out of the experience and unable to get lost in the magic of the story because so many dumb things kept happening. I could not suspend my disbelief for longer than a few minutes at a time because of the lazy cliched storytelling happening in front of my eyes.

Now to give you some background, yes I love original Jurassic Park. I also love The Lost World. I even enjoy approximately half of the third one. I’m not a Jurassic Park purist by any means who believes that Jurassic World must be as good as the original to have any merit. I absolutely love big dumb blockbusters like Pacific Rim and one or two of the Transformers movies. I love audience-starved Tom Cruise vehicles like Jack Reacher, Oblivion, and Edge of Tomorrow. I like every superhero movie ever made. If there’s anyone who should like a Jurassic Park sequel, it is me. I’m standing right here.

While everyone has been hyped for Age of Ultron and The Force Awakens, I have been patiently sitting here waiting for Jurassic World and hoping that it can bring even a tiny fraction of the wonder, thrills, and ingenuity that made Jurassic Park so beloved. Unfortunately Jurassic World fails on every front. I wouldn’t normally call out a movie like this except for the fact that people seem to have eaten it up in droves and decided it is a good movie. It isn’t.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying it, but the movie was consistently and unforgivably stupid when it really didn’t have to be. The first Jurassic Park was good, enjoyable, and scary without being stupid. There is absolutely no reason that Jurassic World should have to be dumb to be good. Why is that even acceptable? I’ve read many of the so-called fresh reviews on Rotten Tomatoes who point out its dumbness and still give it a passing grade and the fact that we can collectively give this movie a pass despite some pretty awful storytelling, horribly cliched characters, and a pervasive sense of mediocrity should be more concerning to anyone who cares about cinema.

Is this what we want in our movies? When we could be asking for more thoughtful engaging blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, why would want to settle for the big dumb dino movie?

So let me set the record straight. I don’t like this movie but I have reasons. I’m not trying to simply give a knee-jerk reaction but I really do think we deserve better. I love plenty of movies with questionable merits but there are certain aspects of Jurassic World that are just not good. And by not good I mean they were so awful that they took me out of the movie watching experience.

Think for a second at the driving force behind the whole plot. The creation and subsequent escape of Indominus Rex. How does she get out? They literally leave the door open. That’s it.

She leaves some scratch marks on a supposedly unclimbable wall and hides her thermal signature and everyone assumes she is out. Do they check her tracking monitor? Nope. Do they spend more time peering into the cage? Nope. Do they send a cheaply available drone or even a remote control car with a camera duct-taped to its back to poke around? No, they leave the doors wide open and go into look for her.

If there is any chance at all that she is still in there, shouldn’t they close the doors? If there is no chance she is in there, why bother going in there at all? Either way, that door should never be left open ever ever ever. There is never any reason for that door to be open.

What is that mantra NASA has about how they keep people alive in space? Backup systems. Your engine fails, use the backup one. Your oxygen filter fails, guess what we brought a spare.

Jurassic World creates a super killer dinosaur and has ONE safety door. No electrified fence. No outer wall. Even the most basic of prisons have multiple locked doors to keep inmates in. But not in Jurassic World.

I don’t mean to beat this point to death, but the larger issue is a storytelling one. In Jurassic Park the inciting incident is an issue of greed and callousness combined with hubris. Hammond doesn’t respect the power of the creatures he brought to life and Dennis Nedry cripples the park’s security features to cover his escape with the embryos. Nedry sabotages the park on purpose causing all the subsequence dinosaur attacks.

In Jurassic World no one sabotages the park. The dinosaur just outwits some fairly stupid people. Yes they did make it more dangerous and more powerful on purpose, but it actually makes an animal look smarter than humans. And since even smart animals are still pretty dumb, that makes the humans in this movie look quite stupid.

If Jurassic Park relies on hubris and greed to get the dinos out, Jurassic World relies on a comedy of errors like leaving the fence open, sensors that don’t work, and an overconfident billionaire helicopter pilot who is as charming as he is reckless. 

The even larger point is that Jurassic World is not really concerned with ideas in the way that the original was. It takes a few underdeveloped ideas, like corporate greed, consumer apathy, animal rights, and aggressive militarization and mashes them all together with scenes we’ve already scene before in other better movies like Aliens, Godzilla, and Indiana Jones.

The movie unconvincingly criticizes corporate greed all while offering product placement from Starbucks to Brookstone and racking up profits for a studio awash in profits from 2015 smashes like Furious 7, 50 Shades of Grey, Pitch Perfect 3, and now the film that just broke domestic and worldwide opening weekend records and topped both Avengers movies.

Yet I could forgive all that if the movie was enjoyable or at least competent in its own right. But it’s not.

Let’s take a simple question like who is the main character of the film. Easy right? Well according to the director Colin Trevorrow that would be Bryce Dallas Howard. However if I had never seen the movie and only seen trailers or read headlines, by gosh I could have sworn that it was Chris Pratt. 

Pop quiz! Without cheating what is the name of the Bryce Dallas Howard’s character?

What? You don’t know! This is a movie about dinosaurs so who cares, right? We’ll save all the good human characters for other movies.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire Dearing, a character begins the movie as a thoroughly unlikeable workaholic park manager. She is dedicated to extracting more profits out of the park’s assets by boosting attendance. She has none of the wonder or appreciation (read: humanity) that have defined other characters in this series. She neglects her nephews, doesn’t want to have kids, and doesn’t even want to evacuate the park because she cares only about her job even to the point of people dying violent dinosaur deaths. Last I checked that will get you life without parole.

Now there’s nothing wrong with a flawed protagonist but there is something wrong with an unrelatable unlikeable one. Her flaws are so great  that the movie trailers decides to introduce is Chris Pratt because he is so much cooler. Audiences have seemed to agreed, praising Pratt’s performance and largely ignoring Howard’s more central role.

When the filmmaker thinks Claire is the protagonist but the audience think Chris Pratt is, you have a problem. Why does the director Colin Trevorrow think Claire is the protagonist? Well Chris Pratt has no character arc and he’s not even around at the beginning of the film. That would be Claire. She’s the one we are supposed to relate to, she is the one who changes over the course of the story, and she is the one who gets a big heroic moment at the end. She is also the one that connects all the other characters together like the two kids lost in the park, the owner of the park, that poor devoured assistant, and those woefully undeveloped characters in the control room. 

Part of the problem is Bryce Dallas Howard. She envisioned this character as something different than what Trevorrow did. Everyone complained about Claire running around in heels but Trevorrow actually asked Howard to take them off and she refused. Why? She thought they represented her character’s femininity and that giving them up would take away part of who her character was. I admire the sensibility but there is no subtlety in Howard’s performance. She overplayed this and not just with the heels but by creating a character that has no charm or basic appeal. The fact that Chris Pratt is funny and winsome should not mean that Bryce Dallas Howard is stuffy and repressed. I will say that Claire is much more likeable by the end of the film but the fact that Trevorrow and Howard choose to start her off as such a Kate Capshaw caricature is really silly. Claire is the main character, but we can’t wait for her to get out of the way because she is so poorly written and directed.

If Trevorrow thought Claire’s heels should come off but instead gave in to Howard, what does that show us about the direction of Claire’s character? Dare I mention that Trevorrow is a newbie director and Howard’s dad is the acclaimed director Ron Howard? I’ve always liked Howard but as an actress she seems very limited by the somewhat girly roles she has been given. All of the movies she is known for have pretty much been creative disasters. Perhaps she deserved to play a better, more nuanced Claire than the one she was handed. It’s not about heels or no heels. It’s about writers and directors putting as much time and thought into their female characters as they do their male characters. Even Jake Johnson’s super minor character with his vintage t-shirt and messy desk was twice as relatable as Claire the theoretical main character.

I wish I was done but there’s more unfortunately.

With the exception of Indominus Rex herself, I thought that the CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic World looked pretty terrible. They were slightly better than a Syfy original movie, and certainly didn’t come off as realistic. I don’t actually believe that the animators got lazy, but I think that the movie overrelied on CGI and that by trying to put it in every shot, it meant that the shots we did get were not up to the standard they could have been.

I went home on Saturday night after watching Jurassic World and rewatched the original from 1993. The CGI looked better in that film than this one. The reason? There are very few CGI shots in that film and so they sincerely tried their hardest to make them look believable. You would need tens of millions more just to make the effects look good (which they might actually do in the sequel).

Another problem was the set pieces. There were also no good action set pieces in this movies. To me this is the absolute worst crime a summer blockbuster can commit. Even the Hobbit movies have a few redeeming action bits or creature moments in each of them enough to justify their existence to their critics.

This movie barely had any dinosaurs! I-Rex doesn’t count.

I count maybe one good set piece in the entire movie. The Hamster ball sequence. It was pretty good. It was the only slightly scary (read: not scary at all) moment in the whole movie. The boys are trapped in a glass dome and right behind them is Indominus Rex.

This is already problematic however for one big glaring reason, why are the kids here in the first place? They have wandered off the path. Why have they wandered? Because in Jurassic World you are allowed to roam around freely bumping into living dinosaurs and circumvent evacuation protocols all because you watched a 20 second clip of Jimmy Fallon goofing off like he always does.

How could anyone in any theme park allow this sort of thing even without dinosaurs? Free roaming hamster balls with no safety restrictions and completely independent rider controls? There is no ride like that anywhere because of the insane amount of lawsuits it would incur.

But wait a second, hold the phone. I’ve seen this scary hamster ball scene already. This is an exact ripoff of the T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park except this time there is no long tense build up, no rippling water glass, no protracted survival sequence with misplaced flares, no drowning in mud, no cars falling out of trees, and not even a bloodsucking lawyer on a toilet. It is literally a pinball machine with ankylosaurs and Indominus Rex running away or losing interest or something.

When your best action scene is copied from another movie and is only a fraction the scariness, that’s just weak sauce.

What other cool action set pieces do we get? 

There is the I-Rex escape which as we have already mentioned is tainted in stupidity. They show off the big bad of the movie way too early. It’s worse than the trailers actually which pretty much only saved the final battle.

There is the battle in the forest between the park’s paramilitary-style security and I-Rex which is again a ripoff of more superior films that show people dying through flatlining heart monitors. I-Rex does give us a very cool camouflage reveal which is used exactly one time in the movie and never referred to or used again. Cuttlefish can only do it once per lifetime I suppose.

One of the big money shots from the trailers is the helicopter crash through the aviary. That leads eventually to a big swarm of pteranodons(?) who all head directly to the where the evacuated crowds are gathered. They fly straight there as if guided by an unseen hand (read: Colin Trevorrow ). That sequence plays more like a generic monster movie than a Jurassic Park film but as long as there’s more product placement in there I’m sure the audience will be thinking more about their next vanilla latte than how utterly unscary and uninteresting this attack is. How sad is it that the pterodactyl sequence in Jurassic Park III was 10 times better and more exciting than this one.

Only two candidates left for awesome set pieces but neither of them deliver.

The first is the raptor hunt where Owen (Chris Pratt) leads his raptor team to hunt down I-Rex. In one of the only cool decisions in movie, the raptors switch sides when they find out I-Rex is part raptor. For a few moments the movie is a little bit awesome as the raptors turn against the humans. This is short-lived however because it soon turns into a boring truck chase where raptors can do impossible things like break glass windows with the side of their heads at 60 mph. This scene ends up with the raptors giving up because the movie has just given up at this point and needs to get to their finale so that they can clear out the theater for the next showing.

The big bad climax of the film is two parts! Why have one battle when you can have two? Owen convinces the raptors (all of which are perfectly fine from their last gunfight except for one blown up by an RPG) to change sides yet again and commit suicide by I-Rex.

Here’s the thing. Raptors are smart. They are not dumb. They don’t commit suicide by trying to kill something 20 times their size. All pack predators know this. If your prey gives you too much trouble, you cut your losses and run away and live to fight another day. All the raptors except Blue are mercilessly killed. They are all completely CGI and look less believable than any of the cool puppet raptors in any of the other movies so we don’t mourn their deaths or even care because this is exactly the pointless dino carnage we all clamored for.

Then Claire gets out her flares (callback to the good T-Rex scene in the original!) and a very unrecognizable CGI T-Rex lumbers out and immediately has a fake-looking but entirely predictable wrestling match with I-Rex which ends with a mosasaur meal that yet again highlights the insanely inadequate security measures that do not exist in this fake park.

I forgot to mention there is a villain. He wants to use the raptors as weapons and then later one of them eats his hand. He is played by the guy who played Wilson Fisk in Daredevil and wow is it hard to watch him go from one of the best textured and sympathetic villains of all time to the most cardboard stock character in recent memory.

We feel more sad for the puppet sauropod and his CGI brothers murdered by the I-Rex than any of the human characters who lived through or died in this tragedy.

The sad thing is that Colin Trevorrow really tried. He devoted years of his life to this project. His sweat and blood are up there on the screen. He gave it his best and it’s far better than what you or I could come up with. He tried but now he is being handed out accolades and a feeling of accomplishment he doesn’t deserve. That’s not his fault. That is the studio’s. They set him up to fail. They picked an inexperienced director with no chips on the table and assigned him a reboot to a beloved franchise that even my mom wanted to see.

And he made a movie just good enough to satisfy everyone and their mom but his next movie is going suck. He will be ripped apart and humiliated because this time he got a free pass just for making a movie that was better than Jurassic Park III.

The reality is that Trevorrow is a rookie director. He doesn’t have the same command of filmmaking and storytelling that his more experienced and more tested peers have developed. He made an indie film and now struck gold with great reviews, great word-of-mouth, and history-breaking box office receipts.

But a single okay indie film and one middling but nostalgia-heavy blockbuster does not a promising director make. From the interviews I’ve read and listened to, it truly does sound like Trevorrow completely poured himself into this project and tried to make it the best that it could be. But it doesn’t change any of my above points. This movie is bad. No matter how many people like it or overlook its flaws, this is still not the type of movie we want to see Hollywood make. By liking this movie we are telling them that we want more crappy sequels, more stupid dino battles, more flat annoying characters, more gaping plot holes, bigger louder prettier things crashing into other things.

We wanted to see dinosaurs so badly that we set up Trevorrow for failure and ruin by commending his dumb movie instead of treating it with measured criticism and review. Trevorrow seems like a really smart guy who put his hand to the plow and came up with the best possible movie he could. He said he wanted to make a “kick ass movie” but we never asked for anything more and that is what we got and that is what we will keep getting.

People seem to admit this movie was dumb (but still GOOD amirite??) but at this point I think maybe the movie is smarter than we are.

Character Study: 24‘s George Mason

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**Spoilers for 24 seasons 1 and 2**

In the first season of 24, George Mason appears to be one of the show’s many throwaway characters. Like most of the higher ups at District, Mason’s goal is to keep Jack Bauer on a tight leash and usually doesn’t succeed. Jack famously  famously shoots Mason with a tranquilizer in the pilot episode and then blackmails him for information. Mason is our first example of the show’s recurring theme of CTU bosses who prefer to hide behind protocol instead of helping Jack stop terrorist threats.

In the first two seasons alone we see Jack forced to circumvent the orders of higher ups George Mason, Alberta Green, Ryan Chappelle, and Tony Almeida. Of course Jack always find a way around their attempts to shut him out, whether it’s forcefully injecting himself into the investigation or forcefully escaping custody. Pretty much everyone in charge tries to keep Jack from doing his job, leading to the inevitable conclusion that CTU is a terrible to place to work. That’s not even mentioning the moles within the organization like Jamey Farrell and Nina Meyers who are secretly working for the terrorists.

However the show’s creators are consistently aware that they have a great actor at their disposal in Xander Berkeley. As a result, they make a large push to develop Mason into something far more than a minor character to be discarded after a handful of episodes. Increasingly Mason is given more depth and characterization throughout the course of the show.

In the pilot episode we learn that Mason has secretly funneled away several hundred thousand dollars that he stole while working a case. Later on during Day Two he admits that he wanted to become a teacher but took a job at CTU because it paid more. And as we will see, greed is not his only flaw.

Throughout Day One, Mason shows great resistance to Jack’s habit of breaking protocol. After being assaulted and blackmailed, he vigorously tries to shut Jack down and threatens to punish anyone who is caught helping him. Although Jack’s allies usually get away it, Mason appears on the surface willing to put his personal vendetta against Jack above preventing Senator Palmer’s assassination.

As District Director, Mason is the polar opposite of Jack when it comes to following protocol. His actions are portrayed as by the book, leaving Jack and Nina continually stuck working outside of his prerogative. At the end of the Day One, Senator Palmer only manages to convince Mason to help Jack against Ryan Chappelle’s orders in exchange for a promotion once Palmer is elected president. This will mean a temporary demotion for Mason but it gives Jack a chance to rescue Kim from the Drazens.

At the beginning of Day Two we see that indeed Mason has been ungracefully demoted to director of CTU Los Angeles. Palmer has evidently forgotten his promise and the once ambitious Mason is now stuck serving time in Jack’s old job. When an emotionally damaged Jack eventually reappears at CTU at Palmer’s insistence, Mason is reluctant to involve his former nemesis on the case. However the stakes are too high for him not to leave Jack out of it. After much initial resistance, eventually Mason caves in and just lets Jack do whatever he wants (with no small amount of sighing and grumbling). With seemingly no will left to resist Jack, Mason even allows Jack interrogate his wife’s killer Nina perhaps to the astonishment of even himself.

However after realizing that CTU has little chance at preventing a nuclear bomb from going off in Los Angeles, Mason assigns himself a lead in far away Bakersfield in an obvious attempt to excuse himself from danger. Tony confronts him but it doesn’t stop Mason from abandoning his entire team. It’s a blatant act of cowardice, a complete abuse of authority, and an all-time low point for one of the show’s more complex characters.

Even though Mason is often at odds with Jack and sometimes a major obstruction to his progress, he is still technically a good guy. He doesn’t want any bombs or assassinations to happen, he is not working for any terrorists, and he has devoted his life to stopping them. Although prickly, he is clearly not a pushover. And the truth is, when he can be convinced to follow Jack’s lead, Mason serves as a powerful ally.

The major turning point for Mason’s character occurs when he is called on to follow up on a lead at one of the terrorist’s associated locations. By leaving the city he incidentally becomes the closest CTU agent available to assist local law enforcement on the raid. They find a couple of hostiles inside the building but the resulting gunfire inadvertently exposes Mason to a deadly amount of radiation. Suddenly the self-preserving George Mason has only between one day and one week left to live.

It is during this same time that an anarchist group (aided by Jack of course) bombs CTU killing many agents and leaving the building in disarray. As Tony tries to pick up the pieces and somehow restore operations, Mason returns to CTU to devote his final hours to finding the bomb and putting his affairs in order.

As it turns out, being the director of CTU is not the only thing that Mason has failed at. He is divorced and he hasn’t spoken to his son in several years. After a futile attempt to get his son to come visit him, Mason has him arrested and brought to CTU instead. It’s a revealing moment. This dying man has spent his life climbing the organizational ladder and squirreling away funds in an offshore bank account at the expense of everything else. With the clock ticking away Mason offers his money to his son and says goodbye. For a man who has made his share of mistakes, Mason will now spend the last day of his life trying to make amends by doing everything in his power to save the lives of American citizens. It’s a powerful character arc and it’s arguably some of the best character development throughout the show’s entire nine season run.

For as long as he can hold himself together Mason leads CTU with a previously unseen focus and determination. Although Jack, Tony, and Michelle quickly discover his condition, they go along with it. Their cooperation is a tremendous show of support for somewhat morally grey character. It only with their support that he is able to buy time to rehabilitate his legacy.

Mason puts in solid work at the office until he is finally forced to excuse himself after fainting one time too many. Unable to continue his job or aid in the investigation Mason promotes Tony, asks him to tell the team what a great job they did today, and walks out of the office. It seems like Mason is out. But of course he isn’t.

Meeting up with Jack at the airfield where the bomb has been discovered, Mason does the unthinkable and pulls a Jack Bauer on Jack Bauer. Through the many seasons of 24 Jack usually operates in an unofficial capacity, generally on the recommendation of the president or sometimes through sheer force of will. This time though it is Mason who is there in unofficial capacity. While the field agents there are not be aware that Mason is no longer head of CTU, Jack certainly is. And he asks Mason the same question that Jack has been asked by Mason many times before, “What are you doing here?”

While Mason offers to fly the plane carrying the bomb, a decidedly one-way trip, Jack refuses on the grounds that if Mason in his poor health collapses or can’t think clearly there are too many lives at risk. This flight requires precision, something that Mason cannot truthfully guarantee at this point. The always consequence-facing Jack assigns himself the mission, tells his daughter Kim a tearful goodbye, and directs the plane to the Mojave Desert. In a very Jack-like move, Mason has used his clout with the field agents to slip by and sneak aboard the plane. Now that Jack has gotten the plane most of the way there, Mason volunteers to crash the plane so Jack can parachute to safety.

Jack is resistant to this idea, but Mason quickly is able to discern why. Jack wants to die. He wants to go out in a blaze of glory, as a hero. After Teri’s death, Jack has been unable to return to work, connect with his daughter, or deal with the guilt he feels for putting his family in danger. Today’s threat has been the only thing that has been able to snap Jack out of his spiral of pain and remorse. Going down with the plane and saving a lot of lives in the process is his way out.

Mason, imbued with the sense of sincerity that only belongs to the dying, convinces Jack that the brave thing to do is not to die but to keep living. If Jack really wants to be a hero, he must figure out how to get past what happened to Teri and keep serving his country. The irony is palpable. Mason wanted more than anything to keep living. Jack no longer had a reason to live. And due to unpreventable circumstances outside their control, they must now switch places.

Leaving the plane only at the last moment, Jack and Mason part ways. The former makes it to safety and goes back to the special work that only he can do. The latter finally earns that rarest of gifts that can only be attained through great sacrifice: he finds redemption.

5 Decent Movies You Missed in 2014

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No, I’m not talking about Boyhood or Birdman. I’m here to talk about the B movies. The ones you forgot about or deliberately avoided. Not all movies can be great, but some movies can provide a quick brainless distraction. A lot of this comes down to your expectations but I present these few mentions from last year as something you might enjoy. That is, if you don’t ask too much of them.

By now I’ve realized my tastes skew heavily toward blockbusters and action movies and this list reflect that fact. If you want something not too serious to pass a couple hours, here’s my pick of decent movies you missed in 2014.

Into the Storm

Coming in with very low expectations, I watched this mid-budget disaster spectacle hoping for at least a good tornado or two. While Twister will always be the definitive tornado film, Into the Storm is actually pretty great, even if it is quite simple in its execution. Luckily the film drops the found footage / time capsule conceit just in time for the storm to get rolling. I suppose the idea of do-whatever-it-takes storm chasers are rather cliche at this point but the real MVP of this film is surely the Titus, a tornado-proof tank designed to capture the inside of a twister for a YouTube world. The smartest decision the filmmakers made was to keep it short, wrapping up the story in a tight 90 minutes. I was so impressed by the bare simplicity of this film that I showed it to some friends who never watch movies and they enjoyed it well enough.

Moms’ Night Out

This semi-Christian comedy, featuring a group of stay-at-home moms who attempt a night away from their kids, probably slipped underneath most people’s radar. Although I don’t usually seek out this kind of movie, the subject matter made it a must-watch event for me and my wife who are current owners of an energetic toddler. I have no real complaints with the film although I’m not sure how much of the humor would translate for those who don’t have kids or go to church. Nevertheless, I was fairly amused by the story of one night where everything that could go wrong goes very wrong

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

If you’re looking for time to kill waiting for Mission Impossible 5, Bourne 5, or Spectre, I wouldn’t fault you too much for giving Shadow Recruit a shot. It’s a rather unambitious entry into the spy genre and ultimately a failed franchise starter, but it’s still cool to send a spy with minimal training into the field with little or no support. The film is competently made and there’s a couple memorable scenes that still float around in my head from time to time. If the big threats are often resolved too conveniently and the characters feel a bit flat, we can be happy that the future of this genre still looks bright.

Non-Stop

I’m not sure if you really missed this one but I haven’t mentioned it anywhere else so far. The airplane thriller is almost a genre of its own and America’s favorite 60 year old action star Liam Neeson lands himself another solid entry as a very unlucky air marshal. Playing a supporting role is the villain of the piece , modern technology itself, portrayed beautifully by texting, programming, smart phones, and the theoretical idea of working in flight wifi. If the plot totally falls apart toward the end, it still doesn’t take away the joy of seeing Liam Neeson offer angry passengers free air travel.

Hercules

I’m not going to say that Hercules is a great movie, because it isn’t. But despite a plodding start and a rather unremarkable vision of mythological Greece, the film just keeps getting better as it goes along. Keeping the real identity of Hercules a mystery for most of the run time, the story continually plays with your expectations of its main hero. Somehow Hercules’ little team of half-clothed Avengers absolutely works by the finale and there are just enough twists to make things interesting. By the time the thumping credits arrive to tell the true story of Hercules’ twelve labors, I’m almost convinced that I just watched a good movie.

Bonus Round: 5 Movies To Skip

While I don’t want to spend too much time putting down movies I didn’t enjoy, there are a handful that are worth skipping altogether.

Pompeii

As much as I like disaster films, the historical disaster film is sort of an uphill battle. In this tale of doomed romance, a volcano explodes, everyone dies, and Jack Bauer is an eviI Roman senator.

The Legend of Hercules

If Hercules rolled around in mud and didn’t do anything related to the Greek myths, then this would be his movie. Thankfully I have managed to block out most of it.

I, Frankenstein

I’m willing to go along with anything as long as it is going somewhere interesting. However this baffling combination of gargoyles, demons, and Frankenstein-in-name-only ostensibly only succeeds in squandering its great cast

RoboCop

When your protagonist can be switched off at the slightest whim of the bad guy, it doesn’t make for a very fun story. As soon as anything exciting happens, you can just shut it down.

Transcendence

It turns out that spoiling the end of the movie in the opening scene is quite effective at sucking the tension out of everything that follows. If a godlike A.I. ever rules the earth, hopefully it does more than just resurrect rural townies in overalls.

Bonus Round #2: 5 Movies I Missed

Here’s where you can help me out. There’s a few non-essential movies I’ve missed that I’m on the fence about watching. I’m fairly forgiving of middling films. Any of these worth it?

Three Days to Kill
Million Dollar Arm
Exodus: Gods and Kings
The Maze Runner
Draft Day

A Final Overview: The Battle of the Five Armies

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If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that I have devoted extensive time to writing about the Hobbit trilogy. By now everyone knows that this series was never intended to be a straightforward retelling of the book but rather a modern fantasy epic using the style and appendices of The Lord of the Rings. While the accusations of narrative bloat and creative shortcomings have accompanied many reviews of the new trilogy, it’s easy to forget that the glory of Lord of the Rings is not without its own complications.

When I saw The Fellowship of the Ring I was a high school freshman several months after September 11 rocked the nation. It was the most exciting, imaginative, and beautiful movie I had ever seen. I went back and saw it in the theater two more times. But many of the college students I talk to today have never seen Lord of the Rings nor are interested in doing so. The Return of the King‘s famous Oscar sweep in 2004 might as well be ancient history to them. The first trilogy despite it many merits still struggles to have an appeal outside of genre fans.

And long before the complaints about Radagast and Tauriel began rolling in, Tolkien purists remained rather vigilant about the numerous changes from the books. Aragorn wasn’t supposed to be self-doubting. Tom Bombadil wasn’t an expendable side character. Gimli was never supposed to play for comic relief. Despite spawning a widespread fanbase and garnering academy approval, Peter Jackson’s first trilogy had its own share of concerns. For many adult filmgoers, this whole project was simply too long, too slow, and too incomprehensible.

Holding up Lord of the Rings as the golden standard and The Hobbit films as its less inspired relative obscures several facts. The young people who most needed fantasy in 2001 are all grown up and the new generation most likely to relate to this genre have found a replacement in Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games. It is also very unlikely that the nostalgic value we have for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, and other fond series of our youth will ever be matched by the next new thing that comes out. We are simply more discerning, self-aware, and grown up than we once were to fall for the charms of something like a Hobbit movie.

It was true however that Lord of the Rings stood the test of time as the one fantasy series that defied the box office and challenged the prevailing notions of what a truly great fantasy epic could be. Out of New Zealand’s bootstrapped film industry a worldwide phenomenon had been born. Fans enthusiastically rewatched the extended editions every year, dressed up as their favorite characters, and evangelized the cause of a cinematic Middle Earth. Since there was really was no other easily adaptable or legally accessible Tolkien work out there, it really came down to The Hobbit as the last and only chance to further this cinematic legacy.

After an extensive period of working out the movie rights to a film adaptation of The Hobbit, a bitter lawsuit between Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema, and even a labor dispute settled by national legislation, Guillermo Del Toro arrived as the man to carry forth this vision and expand it in a different direction. Working alongside Peter Jackson’s team, he would have made a fascinating and unmistakably personal adaptation of The Hobbit. But months of production setbacks cut his dream short, also freeing him to launch the world of Pacific Rim. With the promise of The Hobbit films fading fast, co-writer and producer Peter Jackson stepped in as director and gave the project the impetus it needed to get a green light.

Whereas Jackson had spent three years on pre-production for Lord the Rings, now he had only months before filming was set to begin. Creatures that Guillermo had designed no longer fit in with Jackson’s directorial vision and had to be started over from scratch. Pre-production, production, and post-production would all have to happen simultaneously for these films to get finished on time. The luxury of careful planning that had accompanied the filmmakers in the first trilogy were simply not there for the second. Creature designs like the goblins that were intended to be shot in live action tested poorly and were changed to motion capture. Several crucial design pieces like Azog and Smaug did not get finished until shockingly late into post-production.

The summer before An Unexpected Journey premiered, Jackson was looking over their early cuts of the film and decided that they had much more material than could easily fit into a trim two-part story. Even though The Hobbit is a relatively short book, it includes many characters, encounters, and locations worthy of expanding upon. The thirteen dwarves alone would require a significant amount of screentime to avoid being mere caricatures. Archetypal figures like Bard, the Master, and the king of the Woodelves would need additional time to fully flesh out. And it was not without precedent to expand upon such a story.

After publishing Lord of the Rings, Tolkien himself had gone back to The Hobbit and altered the significance of Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum to highlight the significance of the One Ring. He also had greatly expanded upon the backstory of Thorin Oakenshield’s quest to retake Erebor in the appendices of Return of the King. Drawing inspiration from these changes, Jackson and his writing team of Philippa Boyens and his wife Fran Walsh split up their two part Hobbit film into three films. To do this, they completely rewrote their scripts to create a new third script, The Desolation of Smaug. Suddenly the duology’s lightly developed characters like Tauriel and Bard would be given more lines to be filmed during reshoots. Legolas would be given more screen time. And Gandalf’s mysterious off-screen adventures apart from the Company would be included in full, demanding the return of iconic members of the White Council.

Would these changes work? Could the lightweight children’s story handle the narrative equivalent of heavy steroids to bring it up to the stature of the first trilogy? While there are plenty of issues to talk about here, I think we should first applaud and admire Jackson’s ambitious attempt to craft a worthy prequel and in some small sense continue the Professor’s work. There is much to so much appreciate here in this three-film marriage of story, acting, cinematography, stunt work, animation, costume design, and scoring. And even if many do not like the final result, it’s clear that most have at the very least decided to go watch this last entry in theaters anyway.

The Hobbit films on a whole don’t manage to reach the heights of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s okay. I’m not sure they needed to. This trilogy has both the benefits and constraints of being a studio production. It’s enriched by the immense talent of hardworking Kiwis, its characters embodied by fine actors, its universe crafted by an expert filmmaking crew. If not a perfect follow up to the first trilogy, The Hobbit can only be intended to be enjoyable entertainment for a global audience. Creating an epic prequel trilogy worthy of The Lord of the Rings seems just as daunting as filming of the notoriously “unfilmable” Lord of the Rings itself. It really shouldn’t be possible nor would it be wise to expect lightning to strike twice.

My problem with most negative reviews of The Hobbit films is that rarely do they take these natural limitations into consideration. It’s strange not to care that the production was rushed or that the source material was limited, but still demand a better movie. Pessimists assume that Jackson split the films into three to make more money, that the trilogy itself is an act of creative hubris, and the story changes fundamentally dishonor Tolkien’s printed words by expanding upon them. Such criticism assumes the worst of Jackson and his writing team for trying.

To be fair, there is much Hobbit merchandise surrounding the project. Someone clearly made a lot of money on this venture. However Peter Jackson is probably already rich enough to not have to work long hard days and nights over something he doesn’t truly care for. Any careful observer would know that, for whatever their faults, Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh would not purposefully water down their scripts just to milk the last few dollars out of a nostalgic fanbase. Perhaps an eager studio might, but not the people giving their blood, sweat, and tears every day for four years. Why are we so afraid to give them the benefit of the doubt?

One reason is that there are many more problematic issues with The Hobbit trilogy than there was with Lord of the Rings. The formerly rare big budget fantasy epic is now much more common than it was in 2001. Disney has been releasing one large scale live action fantasy every year. The restrained CGI of the first trilogy is now greatly overused at the expense of the story, The Hobbit films being no exception. The astonished audiences who saw Lord of the Rings in theaters are now older, more cynical, and less impressed by movies in general having long since realized that nothing will quite capture their imaginations like the first time they watched Star Wars as a kid.

With two divisive Hobbit movies down, what could The Battle of the Five Armies possibly offer? What would a successful end to such an ambitious but inferior trilogy even look like?

Now that we have finally seen the third and final film, it looks like we know. As it stands, cutting out huge portions of a long book seems much easier than expanding and developing a short one. While The Hobbit films often capture the magic and feel of Middle Earth and excels in giving us fresh new characters and locales to enjoy, they also suffer from the relatively simplistic undergirding narrative of the book.

If there is one major issue with The Battle of the Five Armies, it is the lack of narrative payoff for everything that we have seen in the last two films. Despite the epic feel and nature of this revisionist Hobbit story, it is at its heart still too faithful to the events Tolkien wrote. The Arkenstone is just a shiny gem, nothing as instrumental as a ruling ring of power. The Necromancer is just an offscreen menace shrouded in mystery, not a true character. Thorin hiding in Erebor not helping his kin seems out of place. Bilbo, the purported main character, is really just along for the ride and doesn’t having much at stake in the outcome of the climatic battle.

It was thought that there would be major story reasons for things like the addition of Azog, the Ringwraiths, Radagast, the White Council, Legolas, Tauriel, and even Sauron himself. It turns out that none of them matter quite as much as they should have.Instead of serving as acceptable background elements, one or two them might have been revelatory. From the massive build up to Dol Guldur, most people probably expected a development beyond “Look, Sauron is back!”

Another concern is that the true antagonist of the series is dead before the title credits. Smaug is a masterful villain and an impressive enemy, but his death leaves one huge hole to fill. This is issue that stems directly from the book. Arguably it would be much more interesting to have a dragon actually fight in the big battle. To overcome this challenge, the filmmakers allow Smaug’s evil to persist even after his death through Thorin’s dragon-sickness. The final film takes a leap and subtly departs from the wild adventures Bilbo and becomes much more the Shakespearean tragedy of Thorin Oakenshield.

Unlike Aragorn, this king’s journey does not end with a rightful throne, a beautiful queen, and a promising heir. His descent into total paranoia is a far cry from the ruggedly inspiring leader we saw in the prologue fighting outside the gates of Moria or guiding the exiles through the wilderness. Jackson’s imaginative portrayal of this mental and moral decay is masterfully achieved in the psychedelic sequences inside the halls of Erebor. He is a king slowly gone mad, corrupted by greed, only finding redemption at the last moment.  While we do get the sense that the filmmakers are fighting an uphill battle, we see them make the best of a story that kills off its most interesting villain long before the final act. The Hobbit films are necessarily as much or more about Thorin than Bilbo. While Thorin may not be as charismatic as Aragorn or as heartwarming as Frodo, he is an unforgettable and valuable protagonist in this reimagined Middle Earth saga.

There are hints floating around online that Jackson was forced by the studio to trim down this final film so that theaters could fit in more showings and generate more money. If this is true, it is unfortunate because The Hobbit finale needed much more story resolution than what we get in the completed film. No where is this more evident than in the deaths of Kili, Fili, and Thorin. In particular Fili, the heir to the throne after his bachelor uncle, received little attention both before and after his death. For a character that has been with us for three films, albeit somewhat on the sidelines, he could have been greatly improved with some additional dialogue and screen time. But perhaps what the three royal Dwarves needed most of all, and what was sorely missed, was a funeral scene and a heartfelt acknowledgement by Bilbo and the other dwarves who would be most impacted by this great loss. For whatever reason, these deaths are quickly passed over in the film leaving the audience little time to process and mourn their passing. This brings up a more salient point about the third film in general.

It is useful to think of The Battle of the Five Armies as a discontinuing of the story that begin at Bag End and something else altogether. The story of the dwarven company of Thorin Oakenshield effectively ends once the dragon is slain and Erebor is reclaimed. Their goal is accomplished. However what has unfolded along the way is somewhat divorced from what came before. While the dwarves do not care much for the plight of the men of the lake, Bard’s story is only halfway done once Smaug is slain. The same goes for Thranduil who sees a ripe opportunity to reclaim the white gems inside Erebor. And behind all this is Sauron who secretly has been marshaling his armies to gain a strategic position in the North and has possibly even recruited a dragon to his cause.

This is not an invention of Jackson but a later point made by Tolkien in a writing called The Quest for Erebor found in the appendices. While the simpler story of the dwarves increasingly becomes tangential to the more comprehensive story of the woodelves, the lakemen, and Sauron’s armies, we are seeing a massive narrative shift under way. This is by design. There is a reason that for years the filmmakers have occasionally referred to the second (now third) film as a “bridge film.” Using Tolkien’s own words as a starting point, the writers have taken The Battle of the Five Armies and used it to tell the story of the larger geopolitical forces at work in Middle Earth rather than the smaller story of the titular hobbit and Thorin’s largely self-centered quest.

This is a film that requires two endings, not one. We need a proper resolution for the Company of Thorin and a completely different one for the men, elves, and dwarves who have staked so much in battle. The first two films denied us payoff for so long, tantalizing us with future developments like the White Council, the Arkenstone, the addition of Tauriel and Legolas, and Azog’s return from the dead that it ultimately leaves us wondering how all of it is supposed to fit together. The final answer is uncertain and it is little use to hope that the extended edition will sort any of this out. It turns out that everything new that was added really just was padding and that the basic story of the book is still the same basic story of the films. Such padding isn’t necessarily bad – I liked Tauriel, Radagast, Azog, et. – but I did hope that it was all going to build into something more.

That is not however to say that I think the trilogy and its final entry are a failure. I find them massively enjoyable, rewatchable, entertaining, heartwarming, and finely crafted. In many ways I prefer them to Lord of the Rings for their lightheartedness and their great spirit of adventure. Upon watching the credits close over The Battle of the Five Armies, I find much to like about the third film.

One of the highlights of the film is the Dol Guldur sequence, perhaps the most obvious example of a subplot in recent memory. In An Unexpected Journey we were teased with the resurrection of the Witch-king, the possible return of Sauron, and a new fortress based at Dol Guldur. However even more exciting was the reality that the White Council would lead an assault there as recorded in the appendices. Galadriel’s promise of help was a perfect indicator that this was going to happen. Gandalf and Radagast further confirm that the Nazgul have escaped their graves in The Desolation of Smaug. The extended edition ends with Gandalf discovering Thrain, confirming Smaug’s alliance with Sauron, and being defeated by the Dark Lord himself. When Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman, and Radagast reach Dol Gulur, indeed they witness for themselves the resurgent Sauron and his spectral lieutenants.

Luckily they happen to be some of the most powerful beings in Middle Earth. Elrond and Saruman deftly counter the nine during a rapidfire series of attacks. Galadriel revives the fallen wizard and delivers him to the safety of Radagast’s sled. With the Nazgul dispatched, Galadriel confronts the Dark Lord herself and drives him off in a frenetic supernatural battle of wills. While not as stylish as the dark/light battle of Gandalf and Sauron from the second movie, it accomplishes the forced retreat of Sauron from Dol Guldur to the East. The implication here is that the diminished Sauron will be less able to influence Middle Earth banished to the less centrally located stronghold of Barad Dûr. The elimination of both his headquarters and his twin orc armies in this film would seem to be deathblow to his plans, but we know it is only a setback until the ring of power can be found.

The events of Dol Gulur are concisely presented and provide a nice excuse to visit old favorites from the original trilogy. While they don’t add too much to the overall story of The Hobbit, they showcase an important development straight out of Tolkien’s mythology and a serve as a reminder to the large happenings surrounding Thorin’s quest. While this subplot is not essential to the The Hobbit, it’s too expensive to only film for the sake of an extended edition and the only real alternative was to not bother filming it at all. I’m glad they included it.

Considering The Battle of the Five Armies as a whole, I think the first two thirds of the film are spectacular and close to perfect in their execution. Even after the thrilling Smaug vs. Bard sequence, the plight of the lakemen and the arrival of Thranduil’s forces pretty much builds to an uneasy standoff between the alliance of men and elves and Thorin in his mountain. The addition of Dain and the dwarves of the Iron Hills only raises the stakes.

During this pre-battle phase of the film, Bilbo’s loyalty to Thorin is profoundly tested. Their conversations together are believably tense, leading up to his reluctant betrayal. While Bard hopes to resolve things peacefully, Thranduil seizes upon this opportunity. You really feel all the chess pieces moving around. This is fitting for what is pretty much the only Middle Earth film where the main cast doesn’t actually travel anywhere.

When the orcs finally emerge from their tunnels aided by the fabled were-worms (only hinted at in the book), the action proceeds like a smaller version of Helm’s Deep or Pellenor Fields. You can’t fault Jackson for the mostly solid fantasy battle that follows. If it doesn’t exactly match the hype of the marketing or the nostalgic perfection of Return of the King, the final product is still a league ahead of the confusing battle chaos found in most modern fantasies like Jack and the Giant Slayer, Snow White and the Huntsman, or last year’s Maleficent. The fighting tends to move throughout the course of the battle from the gates of Erebor toward and into the strategic position of Dale itself.

Perhaps what is more surprising is Jackson’s decision to set aside the battlefield altogether and instead transport Thorin to Ravenhill for his final stand against Azog. This has the unfortunate result of the relegating the battle to the background. We all pretty much expected Thorin to die on the main battlefield in heroic fashion, but instead Jackson opts for a set of isolated skirmishes away from the main armies. While in theory it was probably a smart move, it suffers in execution as the dwarves’ decision to split up seems unfounded and the string of deaths it sets off lacks the emotional impact they deserve.

After Fili and Kili are unceremoniously killed off, Thorin initiates a final duel with Azog over a frozen river. This sequence is an interesting visual choice but it just doesn’t work as well as it’s supposed to. Balancing on slabs of ice and villains emerging from beneath the ice somehow feels like less than what the final battle of this trilogy deserved. As a fan of westerns, I would much prefer the style of a prolonged standoff in the vein of Sergio Leone like they did with the end of An Unexpected Journey.

Thorin himself seems to backtrack on his character growth. For all Thorin’s other virtues, his animosity with Azog has always been motivated by revenge pure and simple. Yes, he is helping turn the tide of battle down below but Thorin has wanted this duel from the very beginning and has always chosen to retaliate against Azog’s savagery with suicidal assaults of his own. Even though Thorin doesn’t die saving anyone or sacrificing himself for a bigger cause, he does yield to Azog’s blade just in time to finish off the pale orc. At least he finished what he started. While it would have been nice to have Thorin die for some higher purpose, I suppose this way is befitting the less heroic and more turbulent character that we have already seen across these three films.

The arrival of Beorn, Radagast, and the eagles to wipe out the second army is sudden and swift. It seems like a missed opportunity. However it is true that the main thrust of the story and all its primary characters have already met their eventual fates. While more battlefield sequences with a skin-changing bear at their center might seem warranted, they could have just as easily come off as unnecessary and indulgent. At its heart this is still Bilbo and Thorin’s story after all.

In the final scenes between the dying Thorin and the hobbit who betrayed him, we get a much needed resolution that is somewhat lacking in the rest of the denouement. Thorin understands that Bilbo gave away the Arkenstone to protect him and Bilbo understands that this king under the mountain, despite many his faults and temporary insanity, remains his friend at the very end. Though evil may have cut short their time together, the bonds of loyalty they have forged together undoubtedly endures beyond the grave.

There are other clues given about the future of the other characters. While we knew that a romance between Tauriel and Kili was never going to work out, it is a bitter end for both of them. Her desire to contribute to the greater good of Middle Earth which has led her to pursue evil all the way to mountain now results in her seeing Kili die before her eyes. Oddly enough, it is the series’ great anti-hero, Thranduil, who steps in to provide her solace in her grief. The white gems that Thranduil has been seeking belong to a necklace his dead wife once wore, his last remaining reminder of her. That death has helped turn Thranduil into the cautious, mistrusting isolationist that he is. Not only has Thranduil lost his wife and been left to mourn her all his immortal days but he now has lost his son, the other last reminder of her. But it is this same sense of loss that also allows him to finally crack a bit and comfort Tauriel. While we do not know what becomes of Thranduil and Tauriel, we do see Legolas’ decision to leave the Woodland Realm for good and join the Rangers of the North.

When it is time for Bilbo to leave the dwarves and return home, we get the overwhelming sense that things can never be the same again. Erebor is reclaimed but without the line of Thror to lead it. Bilbo has succeeded as an invaluable burglar, but he has suffered deadly perils in the form of trolls, giants, spiders, and orcs, the burning of Lake-town, the madness of Thorin, his own betrayal of the dwarves, the seduction of the One Ring, and a gruesome war that has left bodies strewn across the battlefield. This has been an important journey but one with great cost. As it turns out, slaying dragons and stealing treasure is not as idyllic at they seem.

When Bilbo reaches the borders of the Shire, he is changed. Gandalf cannot accompany him any further because his true return is something only Bilbo can do on his own. Bilbo’s prime motivation for helping the dwarves has always been his love of home and his stated goal has been to help them retake their ancestral mountain. However back in Hobbiton, Bilbo’s possessions have been auctioned off and for a moment we get a glimpse of the same stuffy, fussy, uptight hobbit that we saw in the first film. Bilbo reinhabits Bag End but this time it is barren and empty. He has returned home but nothing can be the same as it once was.

Bilbo, from this point on, will be known as the odd hobbit who goes on adventures and tells tall tales of dragons and trolls. He is exceptional, unconforming, peculiar, and ageless. This is the Bilbo Baggins who will be the talk of the town for years to come. And this is the dutiful uncle who will take in a young Frodo after the unfortunate death of his parents. This hobbit may not have been at the center of events, and at times only tangentially related to the wider plots of wizards and dark lords, but he surely participated in and affected them in his own way.

If there is one thing I have learned from my many hours of rewatching, thinking about, and writing about The Hobbit films, it is that analyzing films is vastly different than watching them. A logical analytical approach to film, while useful in its own way, ultimately pales in comparison to the experience of letting a story overtake you with its own agenda and its own purposes. My memories of a film are often reductionist and never quite as good as seeing the film once again with fresh eyes. The Hobbit trilogy succeeds much more as an cinematic experience, an exercise in imagination and honest storytelling, than as a purely logical narrative on its own. The panoramic shots of Middle Earth, the array of otherworldly cultures and races, the noble plights of archetypal heroes against overwhelming evil, somehow it all comes together into a transporting effect whose real impact can only be measured in fleeting moments and intangible feelings.

In this sense, The Battle of the Five Armies works quite beautifully. It may not be as cerebral or intellectually satisfying as we might want it to be, but it nevertheless daringly touches upon the intuitive nature of fantasy offering a sweeping conclusion to the five films that have come before it. There are no perfect stories, but there are plenty of good ones. This is one of them.