The Importance of Story

I remember watching Hobbs and Shaw and being bored out of my ever-loving mind. The promise of a non-stop action film can certainly sound enticing, but you may be surprised just how stale and directionless that idea may be the longer the film goes on. Throughout the whole thing, I wished I could care about anything, any facet of any level of humanity in this film and got nothing out of it except boredom and monotony. The places a lack of of relatability and creativity can bring you.

With the recent releases of Mortal Kombat and Godzilla v Kong, it seems like there’s been this ongoing meme about these big action films not needing complex stories or themes. I feel that attitude towards both these films are valid, if not severely underinformed. While, yes, you do go to these movies to see a giant monkey and lizard duke it out, and you hope to see somebody’s spine ripped out as the characters mutter “fatality” to themselves, I wish to instead look at the bigger picture and wonder how I could become more engaged.

But don’t let it be mistaken: I’m on board with movies that don’t exactly take a lot of emotional or logical engagement. Especially in a pandemic world, the world needs some sort of escapism and to just have some much-needed fun for a couple precious hours. And, hey, with the financial successes of Godzilla v Kong and Mortal Kombat (more on those soon), getting people back into theaters and making them profitable again is a huge blessing. So trust me, I’m not discounting them entirely. But, at the same time, I can’t help but feel casual audiences think this is “good enough”, that we’re not meant to look deeper beyond the cinematic layers because “it’s just a dumb action movie” or “it knows what it is”. These excuses aren’t good enough for me, and I personally find it frustrating “fun” and “competently written” aren’t mutually exclusive; just the opposite, in fact. You can have some of the biggest and grandest special effects and adrenaline-inducing action, but with just a few exceptions, it all means nothing without a good story or characters you can emotionally connect to.

For me, one of the big proprietors for this sort of thing is Marvel’s cinematic universe. That’s not to say each movie’s plot is some super innovative or experimental, thought-provoking storytelling, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the very few attempted interconnected film franchises that proved to be consistently financially and critically successful (DC is starting to find its footing with successes like Aquaman and Shazam and future promising releases like The Suicide Squad, but the Conjuring universe and Dark Universe be damned). While there’s a spectacle to these abundant superhero films, their success is also in no small part due to their slow character growth over the course of a decade’s worth of movies.

Tony Stark began as a co-dependent, impersonal, billionaire playboy philanthropist, then by Endgame fully became a caring, vulnerable, responsible hero who gave his own life to save the universe. Steve Rogers was a blindly patriotic pretty-boy who believed in militarism under his undying faith in his government, but by Civil War he’s become more disposed of the modern structure of the country he fought for and questioned his faith in his leaders. Thor was cocky and ruthless, then became more focused and level-headed, fighting for the honor of his father Odin and his brother Loki; also Thor got fat. Bruce Banner… well, he became more and more a walking joke the more screen time he got, but I hope you get the idea. These are legitimate characters that changed and grew over the course of this franchise. While it may be fair to say the action and spectacle is what kept this universe going, it’s also in no small part due to the audience’s connection to these characters. Endgame doesn’t become the highest-grossing movie of all time just by special effects and some action scenes alone.

That’s not to say a story can never be a detriment, however. Sometimes a good story doesn’t have to be made immediately obvious. In John Wick, there exists an underground organization of assassins that practically control the ins-and-outs of New York City and beyond; all of this more or less takes place in the background, never in the way of the alluring action and set-pieces. The universe of the first John Wick is merely implied and hinted at, leaving John’s connections and occupations overall a mystery. John Wick Chapter 2, however, showed there was much more at play here, introducing the organization’s economy and regulations, which become a key element to the plot connecting Chapter 2 and Parabellum

Speaking of Parabellum, though, this feels like an example of a story taking up TOO MUCH of a movie. This heavy emphasis on a plot strongly impacts the enjoyment factor of this movie as a whole, effectively killing the pacing John Wick-style by the time John finds himself trekking through a desert like it’s Uncharted. Nevertheless, John Wick serves as an exciting action movie with one of the most compelling universes in recent years. Reportedly, the screenwriter Derek Kolstad will not be penning the script for parts four and five, which leaves me a bit cautious for the future of this franchise. Will they continue developing their universe or will all that be left in the dust? We’ll need to wait and see.

In the case of Godzilla v Kong, there seems to be a misunderstanding as to what both these characters represent. 1954’s Godzilla came just after the wake of World War II, and by that extension, the tragic and arguably unnecassary bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American troops fought for a war and have returned home just in time to a country that has just opened the world to nuclear warfare. Godzilla was the manifestation of Japan’s fears of nuclear warfare, a primitive and chaotic beast whose sole intention is to destroy and conquer. Cut to sprawling shots of Japanese military fighting back, to horribly injured men and women on life support and injured, crying children in hospitals. Shocking and sublime imagery that perfectly encapsulated the country, and perhaps the world, once we saw what could come out of the atom bomb.

1933’s King Kong isn’t quite as thematically powerful or rich as Godzilla, but contains a more relatable and sentimental element that humanizes the rather large ape. King Kong tells the story of man versus the forces of nature, unrivaled love, the repression of sexual desires, and American colonialism; a foreign creature captured and enslaved and exploited for profit in the sprawling urban American landscape during the Great Depression. While the themes of both of these characters have been lost as sequels, reboots, and crossovers were being thrown out, they still revolutionized genre-film and are key pioneers to the science-fiction genre.

Now, in 2021, we get both these characters together for the first time since the ambitiously-titled King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962. In 2021, Godzilla doesn’t feel like Godzilla; rather any generic amphibious beast, void of personality or motivation other than to become “king of the monsters”. And let’s not kid ourselves by thinking King Kong isn’t the protagonist of this movie; this is effectively the direct sequel of Kong: Skull Island where King Kong is the coolest asshole around while Godzilla is just a dick the entire time. The characters’ identities are gone, just soulless kaijus that exist solely to punch, throw, bite, and roar at each other so audiences will scream and cheer. And the titular fights between the two are indeed quite fun; too bad the film deep down lacks heart.

If there’s ever been an indicator that Hollywood desperately wants to win over the nerd crowd through empty and half-hearted means, it’s 2021’s Mortal Kombat. There are two potential audiences for a movie like this: Mortal Kombat fans hoping for a good story, and movie fans that want to see a cool action flick. For the latter, it’s quite peculiar to me. “It’s just a fun action film”, people say about a film with only three fight scenes but an overabundance of painfully dull exposition and colorless scenery. Non-MK fans likely wouldn’t be aware, but the Mortal Kombat video game franchise is quite lore-heavy, from the lore of the Midway games to the character focus of the newer Netherrealm titles. The Midway-era of MK lore established powerful themes and character motivations, and Netherrealm, while not being amazing stories in their own right, also inspired what fighting game stories can be, through advanced technology and animation with lifelike facial expressions and Hollywood-level cinematography. So why watch the new Mortal Kombat movie when you could just watch a speedrun of the games’ story modes for even greater entertainment value?

As for the Mortal Kombat fans? The film merely pays lip service to the franchise, focusing moreso on riding the most recent release at the time, Mortal Kombat 11, though bringing in Nitara was a slightly amusing nod in and of itself. How these films can never pay Reptile any ounce of respect is a mystery to me. The violence is occasionally satisfying, but characters with little to no development getting brutally torn apart feels anticlimactic. The movie also introduces a new character, Cole Young, who just so happens to be the most generic and boring character in the entire history of media, who could only become more generic if he was a white guy. Inventing a new character for the Mortal Kombat reboot makes perfect sense, so I have no issues with him in-concept; but why make him so utterly boring and devoid of humor? I wish I could say Cole motherf—-ing Young killing the fan-favorite Goro was satisfying to see as a Mortal Kombat fan, but that simply wasn’t it, chief.

Mortal Kombat is a mess, both as a respectable story to the Mortal Kombat stories and the action movie people claim to say it doesn’t need to be more than. Both these films lack immersion and personality, with not a single character to empathize with or a plot beat to care about. This is where it all comes down to for me: the greatest action films have wonderfully-written stories and characters that opened the gates for other genre-films. “Dumb fun” is turning more dumb than fun. Quality is becoming the exception, and not the rule. Everything needs a good story that resonates in people, even if it’s hard to see on the outset. We all need stories we can latch onto, stories that help us trace our humanity and our own empathy.

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