This contains spoilers for Jurassic World, Assassin's Creed games, Arkham Knight, Thor 2, Avengers 2 and Kingsman.
Movies and video games are big business. They have a lot of dollars thrown at them to create a captivating experience. Big budget titles show off top of the line special effects and big name actors. They even go so far to capture high quality intellectual properties like comics, novels and biopic material. Many of the huge game franchises were spawned from when they could still make something unique and not give the investors an ulcer.
Despite all this money tossed around, story seems to get the shaft, especially when it comes to sequels. Now, we rely on charming actors and their characters to carry weak plots and it works great. Products which have no business finding success are runaway hits and it seems like people are either not discerning or simply don’t care.
Take Jurassic World for instance. It was a wild success. The story is a mess. First, we get no indication of how Masrani even KNEW Hammond other than assuming all rich guys know each other. Sure, he lets us know that he made a promise to Hammond on his death bed but ultimately, Masrani is just a substitute snug guy with some morality. We learn a few key points which turn him into a caricature of Hammond.
We know he’s the 8th richest guy in the world. We know he knew Hammond though not how. We know he’s training to be a helicopter pilot (and since they bothered to say so, we also know he’ll get to fly it at some crucial moment) and we know that he has a high minded ideal that the staff should be worried about how the animals AND the people are feeling. He’s blind to the workings of the park and has no clue that Indominous Rex is a military weapon of mass destruction until he argues with the scientist to show us he’s a good guy.
Hammond, on the other hand (since they were replacing him), gives us a TON of background so we understand him. His passion comes from being a showman—he tells Sattler about his flea circus and how he’s always entertained people. He wants to wow the world and bring wonder to everyone. He’s Walt Disney with a Scottish accent. We also learn his daughter’s going through a divorce and he’s got some grandkids so he understands the audience he’s trying to capture.
When he meets Grant and Sattler, his excitement is infectious. It builds anticipation to see some dinosaurs. His ‘spared no expense’ line means a lot when he says it. He wants this to be perfect. Masrani simply can’t convey that and he doesn’t. Perhaps they didn’t want him to but then, who are we supposed to get that from?
Claire is a sociopath at the beginning of the story. She doesn’t give a shit about anything and is only barely engaged with the fact her nephews are showing up. The way she refers to the animals as assets shows she’s not a character we’re supposed to relate to. Frankly, I’m shocked she wasn’t eaten. The poor nanny conveyed more emotion than she did. Besides, she’s more akin to the lawyer from the first movie than anyone likable. She’s a bureaucrat that gives a guy shit about his workspace.
Even her interactions with Owen are strained. We do find out she’s got a slavish devotion to procedure and red tape when he talks about her printing out an itinerary for their date. I frankly don’t believe they ever would’ve gone out. It makes no sense unless he figured she was a repressed office worker who would be easy to bed—because they had nothing in common except for being single and available.
Then we come to the dinosaur. Yes, INGEN was partially responsible for what they were doing but these people are supposed to be professional. We’re also supposed to believe that they’ve been running the park for a while. Just about everyone should know what works and does NOT work as far as exhibits go. Creating a super horror dinosaur is stupid. They could just as easily have made a triceratops with fangs and left his instincts alone and had something scary but instead, they chose to torture an animal in an enclosure, not socializing it and then acting shocked when it went crazy.
No zoo in the world would make this mistake and one where they’re creating animals capable of rampaging through a crowd of people like a starved man hitting an all you can eat buffet, you would imagine they’d be a lot more responsible. Where are the biologists? The paleontologists? Anyone at all to work with these scientists and say ‘whoa there, watch that trait because it’s bad news’.
And what did they hope to achieve with this dinosaur? Were they going to have another one at some point? Did they really feel it was okay to have this thing isolated like that? Are there no animal rights groups in the Jurassic World universe? Or are we to believe that just because they were genetically created, we should give them a pass that the animals can be treated like total shit?
I know that they were just CG but if you’re to get into the story and immerse yourself, then technically the entire story should make your stomach turn. Watching the brontosaurus die after being savagely killed for no reason at all was heartbreaking. They DID treat that with some respect because Claire finally learned some humanity but to truly come over and no longer be the sociopath we saw at the beginning, she had to have the fear of losing her sister’s kids thrust on her.
Speaking of which, why hire a consultant to look at the cage of your super monster then after it escapes, ignore what he has to say? I do know all about corporate BS and how there’s a rubber stamp process. You mitigate risk by saying ‘yeah, we had X guy look at it’ but in this case, Masrani was involved and he claimed to be concerned about the animals feelings. If he didn’t have them immediately put Indominous down for being socially maladjusted and tortured (then fire someone), he sure as hell should’ve listened to Owen when he warned them about the soldiers they sent to die.
Ultimately, the problem with Jurassic World was this: the plot was merely there to convey Chris Pratt and the kids to another threat, a showpiece of special effects splendor meant to wow you in the same way that the park would if you could go there. There’s no empathy with this writing. They don’t care that the baby trikes were basically tossed around by the pterodactyls. They didn’t care that a poor fat guy got eaten for no other reason than he couldn’t move fast. All they wanted was you to go ‘Whoa! That fish dino is HUGE!’ or ‘Hey, the Raptor and T-Rex just had a Bro moment!’
I’m not just nitpicking. There were dozens of decisions which would’ve made more sense. Before sending the raptors out and, essentially getting them all killed, they could’ve talked to the scientist FIRST. The INGEN guys should’ve said ‘dude, I’m about to waste some assets (if we’re still going to be assholes about the animals). Can you tell me what to expect?’ They would’ve listened to him and he could’ve gone ‘Oh shit, it’s a raptor too? Better rethink this plan’.
Nope, they didn’t care. The big point was to get Chris Pratt on a motorcycle riding with raptors to fight super dino.
Kingsman is another great example of bent storytelling.
Training: these kids are brought together and told by their trainer that only ONE of them will make it. This instantly should breed competition. Their first night, one of them allegedly drowns. They’re admonished for not working as a team. Why would they work as a team? Ever? If they truly want to get into the organization, they should be out for themselves Hunger Games style. Instead, they’re to be selfless and if they fail, go back to their old lives.
Then the dogs. They’re given the dogs and told they need to train with them and develop a relationship. Then their final test involves shooting it? Sure, they didn’t give you live rounds but honestly, how does this show your loyalty? Frankly, it should’ve been that they did NOT kill the dog to show that they have loyalty—that was half the point of raising the poor animal in the first place.
The villain: he’s out of control and over the top. He’s there to distract from all the foolishness of the Kingsmen in the first place. I can understand wanting an eccentric billionaire for your baddy but this guy was so insane, he shouldn’t have been able to function at all let alone be in charge of anything. I could buy him being the talent, the tech support (like Richard Pryor in Superman) but the mastermind? No.
Video games are just as bad. Batman Arkham Knight just came out. There are tons of foolish choices there, some for the sake of the game but mostly, they’re just lame. As a writer with a practically unlimited budget, everything should make sense and you shouldn’t make people groan. I recognize that most people play Arkham Knight to run around as Batman and beat the shit out of people but I was in it for the story and frankly, I was extremely disappointed.
Arkham Knight himself was shallow and see through. I’m not a comic fan and I guessed he was a Robin in the first five minutes. If that’s the point, cool but couldn’t they have been a LITTLE less direct? Couldn’t they have tried to make us think it was someone else at all? And how the hell did the world’s greatest detective not even GUESS it could be Jason Todd? I mean, the guy’s suit alone should’ve given it away but Batman trained this kid. He should know how he moves, even after the military stuff kicked in.
Not to mention the Knight’s gloating. He didn’t make it subtle. He all but said ‘Hey, dipshit! I’m Robin!’ And as an audience, if you needed the Joker’s flashback beating of Todd to give the story away, then you probably didn’t care much about the plot to begin with. That was the super reveal in case you were not paying attention. But this is only one of the big problems with the game in regards to story.
Batman himself is an asshole in the game to the point where you question why anyone’s even hanging around with him. How does he breed loyalty at all? When he locks Tim up and then tells him about Oracle? Asshole move. When he comes back to tell him Oracle’s fine but doesn’t let him out? Double asshole move. Then the kid gets shot! Really? Even if Batman wouldn’t have given up that he was Bruce Wayne, Tim was gone. I can’t believe Alfred even spoke to him after all that shit.
Arkham Knight is about how many bad decisions Batman can make and still save the day. Most of his efforts are totally wasted though. The gas still is dispersed. Ivy has to sacrifice herself to save the day. Barbara is allegedly killed (and that I don’t even know how they pulled off—I thought I was paying attention but when she came back, I was pretty confused). Tim gets shot. The innocent people with Joker blood in them all die.
The only real successes are from the side missions. Even then, when you do the serial killer one, you find him carving someone up with his latest experiment and have to beat the shit out of his victims. My consumption of Batman related entertainment comes from cartoons and video games so maybe there are a lot of examples of this but considering what I’ve been involved with, these seem like decisions just to make the environment depressing and the main character less likable.
There are some bad game design choices which could’ve hurt the story as well. Having to use the Batmobile for most of the important fights was a big one. Having to make a drill chase you through explosives was silly (but not super unexpected because there was something similar in Asylum). The serial killer murder investigation is completely wasted. You have 3 options to scan (skin, muscle and bone) but rather than have it change up or do anything different, you just use them all one time and you’re done. It’s just going through the motions after the first one and could’ve been a lot better—like forcing you to chain your discoveries together to do a deeper dive into the next examination.
As a result of these game play decisions, the game itself suffered. The Riddler constructs death traps throughout the city, never mind the fact that these things are so elaborate it would take a guy (even with a robot army) a LONG time to construct. And there are a LOT of them! 9 to save Catwoman and over 240 riddles to solve. I hate having to simply accept that it ‘happened’ but he’s screwing up major parts of the city and would’ve had to start before the events of the game. He simply would not have had time, especially in the relative peace of Gotham.
Also, how did Jason start an army? How’d he go from a screwed up, beaten and abused victim of the Joker to the leader of a powerful paramilitary unit that could hold Gotham with such tech? Maybe if you’re a fan of the Red Hood you know. Maybe if you play the Red Hood story pack they’re releasing you know. But I would think you should at least have something IN PASSING explain how it happened.
Let’s look at the ending. Batman’s caught. He has to reveal he’s Bruce Wayne to the world. He knows someone’s tracking him. I hoped it would be Nightwing, who was mysteriously absent when Scarecrow made Bruce give up. Nope, it’s Arkham Knight! He shoots Bruce free, gives a quick Bro nod and then Batman takes care of Scarecrow. They then rapid fire finish up with a chat from Gordon, a statement Robin will be okay and Batman saying they need him for one more night.
No talking to Jason…no quick chat with Tim…it just wraps up and puts you on a rooftop to finish up side quests. When you DO finish enough, you can initiate the Knightfall protocol where you go home, blow up the house and fake your death. Who the hell would believe it? He walked in and seconds later it goes boom? I guess they never figured out he was Batman so they must be easy.
One thing I’ll give them, at least they have people call out Bruce for being an ass. When Tim gets caught, Oracle goes off on him and he’s always got the Joker around to give him a hard time. Tim and Nightwing tell him how much of an ass he’s being for not letting them help. I think he was trying to protect them from seeing him have his moments where the Joker talks to him but I wish there would’ve been a better visual cue to show him having trouble, something like him twitching or his eyes turning green for those scenes (and maybe they did, but I didn’t notice).
Asylum and City were pretty tight. Arkham Knight felt sloppy and they didn’t have to care because it got plenty of accolades. The game itself is a success but there are story problems which should at least make people critical of the effort rather than just rote accept it. What I hear from people is ‘but I get to be Batman’ and that leads me to my next problemed story: Thor 2.
Thor 2 relied on Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth to be charming and interesting. People wanted more Loki and Thor hanging out chatting it up and they got it. The story around that event was a hot mess. The Dark Elves, trapped for thousands of years, wake up and have technology to tear up Asgard. Why was Asgard static for all that time? Shouldn’t the Dark Elf weapons be ineffective against their progressive defenses?
They could’ve solved it by saying Thanos gave them the gear but they didn’t. They just let them storm in because it was plot appropriate to have the dire situation. Everything in it from Thor’s mother dying to Odin going to sleep was so perfectly timed, it built a tight little package far too convenient to simply accept. But fans got what they wanted because the characters were the important thing.
They relied on that for Avengers 2 as well but it didn’t work out as easily since they messed with Black Widow a bit. I personally didn’t see anything wrong with what she said until I read the complaints. Most of them (in my opinion) were far too passionate and flat out rude to be taken seriously but underneath all the vile stuff they threw out there, I see some truth. She was a strong female character who was somewhat marginalized by the events of her past and some of the ways she described things.
The romance with Banner was also pretty tacked on. Where was the precedent? They should’ve made a Hulk movie and SHOWED us their burgeoning relationship, not TOLD us it was building up between movies. And killing off Quicksilver? Did someone just HAVE to die? I mean, that’s a wasted asset (to borrow from the Jurassic World jargon). Why not just hurt him really bad? He was a great character who finally came around.
Many titles these days can rely on their FIRST success and know fans will buy into anything they come out with as long as it doesn’t TOTALLY suck. Assassin’s Creed Unity turned a lot of people off from all the technical problems they had. I was turned off by some story decisions. We’re in Paris and only the people you pass by have French accents. Ezio sounded Italian. Aveline sounded French/Creole. Altair sounded Arabic in Revelations (granted, he sounded like an American dude in 1 but it was practically just a tech demo). Edward sounded like a pirate. Why would Dorian sound like he came from London?
Let’s go more broad. Most Assassin’s Creed protagonists come in one flavor: hot head arrogant bastards who learn some responsibility and become good men.
Here are all the characters so far from AC you portray in games:
Altair: Hot head assassin who is demoted because he doesn’t give a shit about the Creed and has to learn to be a leader. We later learn he had to learn even more difficult lessons but in his own game, he starts the trend.
Ezio: Young, brash and kind of an ass, he grows up when his father and brother are killed and eventually becomes the coolest character ever.
Connor: He’s got a real chip on his shoulder (his family dies, so he deserves it) but I never really got the sense he quits complaining. The other characters get over their tragedies and Connor doesn’t. It’s fine, this at least sets him apart in that he doesn’t let go of the past when it sucks. I like that they changed it up.
Haytham: You play Haytham so much in AC 3, I thought he should be talked about. He starts out arrogant and continues that way. When you run into him in AC Rogue, he ain’t different. But we’re coming into an established character. No origin with him and we don’t know what he was like as a young man.
Edward: Arrogant pirate ass who gets marginally less piratey as the game goes on.
Shay: In Rogue, you meet this cocky Irish dude who gets pissed when the Assassins don’t seem to care about the fact that their investigations are destroying cities. He becomes a serious but still roguish guy as he tries to foil their plots the rest of the game.
Dorian: Adopted by a wealthy guy after his father is killed, he’s grown up to be a rascal who learns his responsibility when his adoptive father dies and he’s thrown in prison. He’s still immature for a while in his quest for revenge but he definitely comes around. Killing his girlfriend at the end really settled things.
Aveline: She’s a saucy character but pretty serious when it comes to her job. She’s a serious departure for the game and I love this character for it. The game mechanics allowing her to be a ‘lady’ were awesome and old New Orleans is pretty even on the crappy graphics from the PS Vita.
The problem is they don’t have to try. I believe in the article I wrote about video games having the qualities of novels. Many games have fantastic stories. Even when they’re lazy about their characters, the stories themselves are entertaining. Dorian’s quest to figure out what’s going on in Assassin’s Creed Unity was awesome and if you wanted to, you could engage in murder mysteries and dozens of side quests. Shay’s missions were also awesome. Black Flag was my favorite in the series.
Ultimately and finally, I can say this: any story in the world can be picked apart if you try to do so. Your level of enjoyment can be as damaged as you want it to be. If I’m not happy with Jurassic World’s story and 500,000 other people are, that’s on me, NOT them. If I’m going to be a picky ass, then I get to reap the consequences. I do wish writers would pay more attention when they’re handed these big titles. I wish they would spend some time filling in holes even with small quips to fix things.
If that doesn’t kill the enjoyment for other people, then good. The goal is to entertain and if people are happy, then I call success. Blockbusters have no right to convey shoddy or sloppy story elements but they have the fortune of incredible actors and beautiful special effects to help elevate their work. The characters tend to be intriguing enough to keep us going. I don’t think we can rely on that forever (Avengers 2 Black Widow shows that to be true) but it’s a train with a whole lot of stops before someone pulls the cord.
Author of several books, composer of several CDs. Please check out the rest of the site for some of my work.