Can Modern Blockbusters Still Create Tension?

With blockbuster season approaching, we examine why action films don't get our hearts racing like they used toWith blockbuster season approaching, we examine why action films don't get our hearts racing like they used to
by Steve Hanley, Editor

by Steve Hanley, Editor

With the recent release of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, the summer blockbuster season is officially underway. These films will inevitably differ from each other massively in both content and quality, but it is becoming more and more likely that they will all share a common flaw:  a failure to convince the audience that the heroes are really in danger.

Too often these days we leave the theatre without ever truly worrying about the protagonists; without ever locating the edge of our seats. We find today’s protagonists charming and amusing, but without the fear that we might lose them, it is more difficult to invest in them on a deeper level.

This has been an increasing trend in blockbusters in recent years. But why? Technically the stakes have never been higher in these films. In most cases, the consequence of the hero’s failure is nothing less than the total annihilation of the human race. This has become so expected nowadays that screenwriter Damon Lindelof stated that “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world.” But despite all this, movie-goers are finding it more and more difficult to suspend our disbelief that something might go wrong. That the villains might actually win. That the heroes might fail.

The way these movies are currently being advertised probably contributes to this. Take the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example. Before the release of Age of Ultron, Marvel had already announced the next Captain America movie and two more Avengers movies. It’s naturally going to be more difficult to believe – even for a second – that Captain America might not make it through Age of Ultron, when you’ve just spend the last few months dreaming up theories about what’s going to happen in Civil War.

Even when sequels to these blockbusters aren’t announced ahead of time, it’s easy to speculate that studios might not want to kill off any of the major characters. Sequels make up such a large portion of our highest selling movies these days, that keeping a character alive is always going to seem like a good idea. Just in case they can make more money from him/her later.

These aren’t problems that are easily fixed, because they are rooted in how movie studios make their money. But there are larger problems in the scripts of these blockbusters, that can be addressed. For example, action heroes very rarely act vulnerable or afraid.  It’s hard to fear for these characters when they don’t fear for themselves. Apparently there’s no amount of danger that can’t be faced down with a patented Joss Whedon quip. Keeping an element of fun in our action movies is no bad thing, but there’s a way of accomplishing that without making the heroes seem indifferent. So much effort is put into making the heroes cool that the writers forget to make them human.

But then again, why would our heroes fear death when it seems to mean so little in their world? Even when characters are killed in our action movies, they refuse to stay dead. At this point it’s hard to mourn those who die in these films as there is always a lingering suspicion that they will return.

More often than not it will turn out that a character simply faked his own demise. Gordon was guilty of this in The Dark Knight and Batman himself copied the idea in The Dark Knight Rises. Nick Fury fakes his death in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Elsewhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Loki pulls this stunt with such regularity that it’s practically become his party trick.

Fake deaths are infinitely preferable, however, to deaths that simply happen not to stick. Again the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a major offender here. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Groot sacrificed his life in a moment that would have been a lot less touching if we had already known that he would be immediately reborn. In The Avengers, Agent Coulson’s death is what ultimately allows the heroes to put their differences aside. But that didn’t stop him from getting his own television show. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer used time travel shenanigans to bring back several characters who had died in X-Men: The Last Stand, which had been released eight years previously.

However, it would be difficult to find a more egregious example of a movie minimising the importance of death than Star Trek: Into Darkness. Towards the end of the film Captain Kirk dies and is brought back to life using a medicine created from Khan’s blood. There is now a cure for death in this universe. It’s going to be a little tricky to create tension in the sequel.

Maybe that’s why the fate of the world has to be at stake in Damon Lindelof’s films. His scripts don’t treat the death of a single character very seriously. Even if that character is the film’s protagonist.

Bringing characters back from the dead is an attempt by film makers to try and add tension to films but without suffering any of the consequences of actually removing a beloved character from the franchise. Unfortunately audiences can usually see through this trick, and ultimately it makes us even less inclined to worry for the safety of a movie’s hero.

It stands to reason that if major character deaths are off limits, then the best way for a film maker to create tension is to make the audience fear for the safety of the average person on the street. Watching a hero fail to save a civilian’s life can be just as devastating as the death of a major character. You would think that this is an area where current blockbusters could excel. This is rarely the case. Destruction porn has become a huge part of our summer movie releases in the 21st century. Film makers destroy cities over and over again, but often give no thought to the lives that would have been lost in the middle of this spectacle of CGI explosions.

Man of Steel received a lot of criticism for this after its release. Superman has traditionally been a character more concerned with saving the innocent than destroying the guilty, so people were unhappy that this new iteration of the character did not seem to care much when he was endangering people’s lives. But while Man of Steel may be the most notable offender here, it is far from the only one. You’ll see the same kind of behaviour in almost every recent superhero film. It just feels more jarring when it’s done with the Superman character.

It’s not necessary to allow the audience to mourn each victim individually in these films, but an acknowledgement that something tragic has happened would be a great start. Even in a film that is supposed to be light in tone, there’s nothing wrong with letting the audience care when something bad happens.

There have been plenty of big-budget action films over the years that managed to create tension and a sense of danger, without giving the film an overly dark tone, and without killing off any of the heroes. For an example of this, let’s go back a few years. Actually, let’s go all the way back to 1988 and the release of one of the greatest action movies ever made: Die Hard.

What is it that made Die Hard so fantastic? A great cast, and some memorable dialogue were major contributors, but more importantly this was a film where you were always aware of what was at stake. The script bends over backwards to make McClane appear vulnerable, from the emotional vulnerability of being estranged from his wife, to the physical vulnerability of going through the film barefoot.

There were a number of scenes focusing on the hostages themselves, reminding us what the consequences would be for McClane’s failure. Gruber executes one of the hostages in cold blood early on and it lets us know that none of the other hostages are safe, and his ability to outmanoeuvre the police throughout the film establishes that he is a dangerous and competent villain, despite his failure to capture McClane. It’s hard not to invest emotionally in this kind of story.

And yet the film was still fun as hell. You’d have trouble convincing me otherwise.

I’d love to see a return to this kind of blockbuster. Films where it’s impossible to forget what’s at stake and where investing in the struggles of the characters comes completely naturally. Films where I can believe – if only for a second – that the worst might happen. Even if it’s only so that I can be that much more delighted when everything turns out just fine in the end.

That’s what I’d like to see from this summer’s blockbusters. But, just like my last few trips to the theatre, I won’t be holding my breath.

Steve Hanley is an editor and co-founder of