“You Can’t Hate A Villain Who Doesn’t Make You Question Your Life”
So my wife and I saw the Green Lantern movie in the theater.
The big twist was that the film ended when we weren’t expecting it to.
Which is to say that a final battle in an action movie should, ideally, bring in all the lessons that the protagonist has learned over the course of the story. They’ve learned from their mistakes, they’re motivated more because the things they love are more in danger than they’ve ever been, and the villain’s philosophy is no longer compelling.
And Green Lantern had a big, knock-down battle that both Gini and I went, “Oh, this is the fight where Hal Jordan loses, and realizes why his strategy isn’t working, and limps away to come ba – oh, no, wait, the credits are rolling.”
Because a good story has a climax. It’s a series of events that are amplitudes, slow shakes that build upon each other to create an earthquake. That fight is not a fight – it’s the hero’s new mindset, weaponized.
Bad stories end with a fight.
And I’m thinking of that because I finished Watch Dogs 2 last night, which is an entertaining game and a terrible goddamned story. Watch Dogs 2 features HIP MILLENNIAL JUSTICE HACKERS who make zany movie references and HACK FOR FREEDOM and wear millennial outfits. They’re like a Saturday morning cartoon version of Anonymous.
The storyline is complete garbage because the story writers and the game play designers apparently lived on separate continents and never spoke to each other. Watch Dogs 2’s story would have you believe that DedSec, the Millennial Champions Of Fair Play, are deeply concerned with the lives of Joe Average Sheeple, hacking into political servers not because they want to get rich, but because they are in search of Truth and Freedom.
Watch Dogs’ game has you carjacking random civilians before running them over in the street.
In fact, there’s one mission where some bad hacker outrages the noble compatriots of DedSec because he is – gasp – feeding the wrong addresses to SWAT teams and sending them crashing through the door of innocent civilians! They take him down in the most humiliating way possible, because DedSec are heroes, and oh wait one of the standard powers you have at your disposal is literally pressing R1 to tag some poor random bastard as a false SWAT target and watching the cops Rodney King the fuck out of him.
So the game is a seesaw of characters protesting very loudly that they are good guys before beating up hookers and stealing their money.
But I beat the game last night, and I was like, “Wait, that’s the end?” The only reason I wasn’t surprised by the end credits was because the game had, helpfully, thrown up a warning saying “HEY THIS MISSION IS THE FINAL MISSION U OKAY BRO?”
And again, Watch Dogs 2 had a fight, but not an emotional moment of catharsis. The missions were not lessons in which the characters learned anything – they were excuses for DedSec to release a propaganda video decrying Modern Evils like hacked voting machines or the militarization of the police force.
People died, and it seemed random, because our hero Marcus didn’t learn anything from the death aside from “I want revenge upon the gang members who killed him for no good reason, and here’s a mission where I drop bombs on this person’s killers.”
A good action climax involves the character making hard decisions that affect their outcome. Maybe they’re crawling through duct vents to save innocent civilians when the cops are doing their best to betray them. Maybe they’re fighting computerized agents and they need to learn the certainty that love gives them before they can unleash their full power. Maybe they’re a dark knight protecting their city, and they need to become comfortable becoming the scapegoat so their city can keep running.
There’s a philosophy driving that final fight. It’s not just people punching each other – it’s the hero learning something they didn’t know before, and synthesizing that knowledge to help them win. Sometimes, in the case of Die Hard, it’s a question of finding a new faith in that philosophy – or in the case of the Matrix, it’s discovering what a new philosophy gives you.
Or you have Watch Dogs, where the characters don’t learn because the writers have given them no challenge to their philosophy. As a writer, DedSec should be an easy challenge – okay, these hackers believe in freedom at all costs, so much so that they’re all casually willing to die for it. What happens when they stumble upon information that’s genuinely better kept secret? Or what happens when, as actually happens during the game if not the story, they’re so certain of their morality that they become the evil they’re fighting?
None of that happened in Watch Dogs. There was a lot of philosophy tossed about, but nothing about what the heroes believed was ever challenged. Every threat DedSec faced was a straw man, so laughably evil that there was never a question that they might have a point. DedSec never doubted their goals – they just doubted they could pull them off, which is very different than “Should I be doing this?” Even when they died, it was like, “Welp, that person was devoted to the cause, pour a bottle, move on.”
So the end game was a surprise. There was no buildup. There could be no buildup. There was nothing to build up to, aside from endless setpieces and action montages.
You can’t hate a villain who doesn’t make you question your life.
And if you don’t hate the villain, doesn’t matter how big the final battle is, it’s just going to be a big ol’ “Oh, he’s gone?” before the end credits roll. Just like Watch Dogs. Just like Green Lantern.
Just like a hundred other stories you’ve already forgotten. And if you’re a writer, “being forgotten” is always your real enemy.