On Storytelling and Stakes

The wife and I went to see Logan, the last of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine appearances, the weekend it came out. It’s really excellent and reminded me of how good the 2013 entry, The Wolverine, was (the original origin story in 2009, not so much). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that those two movies are among my favorites of all the modern era superhero movies. I tried to figure out what that was, if there was something about them that really set them apart from, say, something in the Avengers canon or one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman flicks. Turns out, I think it’s because they’re smaller movies. Or, at least, the stakes involved are small enough that you can actually care about them.

I first noticed this in connection with Star Trek. Think about it – in the original series the jeopardy in each episode was usually faced by either Kirk, Spock, or McCoy or some combination thereof. A few episodes extended to other crew members and, on a very rare occasion, to the entire Enterprise. But the show never really tasked our heroes with something so grand as saving Earth or the galaxy or whatnot. The only thing in that area that jumps to mind is “City on the Edge of Forever,” which did involve setting the universe right, but, critically, the real drama was all about the main trio and, specifically, whether Kirk can let his love interest die as she must to set things right.

When we get to the movies, though, the stakes became increasingly high. How many of them involve some Earth-shattering baddie that only the Enterprise crew can stop (where is the rest of Starfleet at these times, anyway?). Paradoxically, that actually ramps down the tension, because who really thinks our heroes aren’t going to literally save the universe? An example proves the point – what’s almost universally hailed as the best of the Trek flicks? The Wrath of Khan. Which is, at its heart, about Kirk and an old foe battling it out until the end (universe altering tech in the background to one side).

Returning to The Wolverine and Logan, in both those flicks the stakes are fairly low, in terms of superhero movies. They play more like short stories, side plots in a bigger novel wherein the fate of the world hangs in the balance. But when it’s just the fate of a few (including our hero), things hit a lot closer to home. In other words, it’s easier (for me, at least) to become emotionally invested in the fate of Logan and his young charge than it is to really care whether a gaggle of X-persons stop Apocalypse because, come one, of course they will.

Although it’s horrific, the old adage attributed to Stalin (who would know from horrifics) that “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic” is true. It’s easier for people to empathize with a single other human being rather than a large group defined by broad common traits. The same is true in fiction. Sometimes you make a bigger impact by telling a smaller story.



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