[Attention: Vague spoilers on Fast & Furious 6, Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, The Avengers. More specific spoilers on Die Hard, Die Hard 2.]
I get all my best ideas about Star Trek from NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, so naturally, when he came by my desk this morning with an observation, I was all (non-pointy) ears.
He noted that in Star Trek Into Darkness, as in a variety of other recent action/thrillers, there are an awful lot of casualties before the heroes are eventually victorious. It used to be that if the good guy was going to save the day, he did it before entire cities, buildings, and other things containing gobs upon gobs of innocent humanity were destroyed.
As it happened, I had noticed this as well, most recently in Fast & Furious 6, which is why I noted at the time that it suspended the general principle that most films follow that is known as "Even Innocent Bystanders Who Do Not Have Speaking Parts Have To Not Die In Order For The Good Guys To Be Considered Entirely Successful."
It's always been possible for there to be losses before the hero wins, but consider the difference between Die Hard and Die Hard 2, the latter of which is the first movie where I can remember thinking, "That's an awful lot of losing before the winning starts." In the first film, you lose an innocent person here and a semi-innocent dummy there, all the better to prove how merciless Hans is, but there's such avoidance of unnecessary dying on the part of the nonviolent that the nerd terrorist, who just does computer crimes, gets off with a punch in the face.
But in the second film, John McClane, despite his best and most ingenious efforts, is unable to save an entire British Airways flight full of innocent people.
Interestingly, for me, efforts to raise the stakes by cranking the body count among the innocent have the effect of lowering the stakes. By the end of Fast & Furious 6*, I sort of felt like the best the heroes were going to get from me was a vague, uncertain "Yay?", because however miraculous the rescue of an individual member of the team, I couldn't help thinking they were pretty inept heroes, given the way [SPOILER] kept running over [SPOILER] all over the [SPOILER] until the funeral homes were presumably booked for months to come. Sure, they might save their own guys, but haven't they already kind of lost the war against letting a crazy dude run wild?
Is there a moment, I wonder, where your movie has flattened so many people that the hero is sort of a selfish jerk for being consumed with whether he's saving his friends/girlfriend/family/team?
In fact, one of the things I like about Iron Man 3 is that it returns to the events of The Avengers to suggest that "winning" in a way that also includes a ton of losing would actually be deeply and profoundly traumatic, not energizing and ending with a bloomin' picnic.
It really does raise the question of what an action hero is supposed to do. Is he supposed to be victorious in an individual moment, in a hand-fighting confrontation on the top of a moving vehicle? Is he supposed to save himself and those closest to him? Or is he supposed to thwart the bad guy's desire to hurt a bunch of innocent people?
Would Speed have still been Speed if Dennis Hopper had successfully dropped the elevator and blown up the bus, but the "I'm taller" confrontation had gone the same way?
*By far the funniest part of my conversation with Ari was when I said, "Have you seen Fast & Furious 6?", and then I felt very silly, because he is the White House correspondent and very elegant and no, he did not take himself to see Fast & Furious 6. If you ever wonder how diplomatic reporters can be, consider the fact that he refrained from immediately saying, "Well, I would have, but I was reporting the news. From the White House. Where the President lives."