The Slippery Slope Of Power Slides
You know the feeling. You’re sitting down at the dinner table ready to enjoy a meal with loved ones. You add the side dishes: corn, rice, and salad. You have your fork poised, ready to stab a hearty, thick slab of steaks only to find out there isn’t any. You know the disappointment. There is a huge void on your plate and in your heart. The meal isn’t complete.
I think I’ve clarified the feeling well enough. Post completed.
Fine. I won’t leave you with the same feeling. Let’s talk about real stakes. Something pointedly missing from today’s superhero media.
Since Marvel’s Endgames, the concept of stakes has been as elusive as the steak on the dinner plate above. The heroes start off in one state of being and end up the same as they had before. Nothing changed. Nothing was at risk. Nothing filled your heart with meaning.
Why have superhero movies been so unfulfilling?
First, let’s define stakes. They’re the things characters stand to lose or gain in their story. When Thanos snapped his fingers and half the universe disappeared, that’s an example of stakes well done. When Iron Man sacrifices himself to defeat Thanos, Chef’s kiss.
That’s the point of stakes. For them to mean anything, the heroes, or the people they represent, must lose them every so often. If there isn’t a loss, then the stakes presented are nothing more than an illusion. And no one can survive off illusions. Certainly, stories can’t.
So, why have superhero movies avoided stakes? The only answer is cowardice. The companies that own these IPs are afraid of the implications such stakes have on their bottom line. If heroes fail, are they heroes? If heroes die, how can we milk them for more money?
Yet we have evidence of successful stakes from the Dark Knight trilogy and from Marvel’s Thanos arc. These stories captivated the audience with provocative loss. I remember standing in the movie theater as the credits for Infinity War scrolled with the heavy realization in my heart that the world I’ve championed had changed. That the heroes faced a challenge unlike anything they’ve ever faced. I felt drawn to the story and wanted more.
I’ve had a few chances of that feeling since. Peter Parker’s loss at the end of No Way Home and Rocket’s flashback to the family he lost at the hands of the High Evolutionary in GotG 3. Even then, I have a strong sense that Peter’s situation will be rectified soon. And Rocket’s loss happened in the past.
Where are the snaps for the present characters?
Status quo isn’t a feeling. In fact, it’s the opposite. Without feeling, what does a story offer? Flashing explosions and choreographed fight scenes can only fill so much of the vacuum in my soul. Stories need to resonate with the audience. Failing to do so will only result in a mass exodus from the genre. It’s already begun under the flag of “Superhero Fatigue.”
I take the cautionary lesson from the movies to heart as I write my own superhero stories. Loss is a net gain. Failure is a success. Heroes are human, no matter the species they belong to or the costume they wear.
I can only hope the writers who have woven such wonder in the genre for the past few decades can remember what makes a story great. Until then, I’ll work on my own.