Sunday, July 20, 2008

Marvel Movies: The Three Fight Rule

So, Marvel is making their own movies now, and I enjoyed Iron Man quite a bit, and The Incredible Hulk was also on the correct track, but what I want to talk about specifically is the meting out of fight scenes.

Iron Man followed a three fight formula that was essentially "fight to survive", then "become an irresistible force" then "meet an unmovable object". The Hulk complicated the system a bit by virtue of the Hulk being in all instances an irresistible force, but there were still three main fights.

To elaborate, the fight to survive is the origin fight in Iron Man's case, and the factory fight for the Hulk. This is a battle not necessarily initiated by the hero, but is one that results in the unrefined application of force on the hero's part in overcoming an immediate threat. The becoming an irresistible force is the recognition that the power that was applied in the fight to survive could be used to liberate others. Iron Man takes down terrorists and Hulk protects Betty. This fight to some extent is a shift between a selfish and selfless incarnation of the hero. Fight three, the meeting of the unmovable object, introduces the foe who is equal or greater to the hero in potency. This fight changes the rules, and all the overwhelming power shown by the hero in fights one and two are now moot in the face of this opponent who has in some way mimicked the hero's capabilities. This is the hero fighting the selfish version of himself, and for me, this is the most interesting show down. Iron Man can only distract and deflect Iron Monger while Pepper delivers the killing blow, and the Hulk has to rely on the source of his problem, his anger, to overpower Abomination.

The virtue of having a relatively small number of distinct battle sequences is, to me at least, that it opens up a large portion of the movie to inaction. Stark has time to be Tony Stark and to experiment with his technology, and Banner gets to worry about contaminating people and figuring out how to fix his problem and all while both of them sort of get to have a relationship with a female. And all of this inaction makes the subsequent action much more important, and it keeps inaction out of the action. Bring Singer, I think, in his X-Men movies had to mix a bit of action and inaction due to the fact that he had such a large number of characters who needed to perform in such a short period of time, hence the furious cycling between the use of words and fists throughout almost the entire movie. Daredevil took this to something of an extreme through its use of trivial action sequences and banal dialogue. Had Marvel made that movie, I would bet that Matt wouldn't have sparred with Elektra in the park, and we would have gotten a better court case instead. In other words, Matt would be a character who fights in the law courts, and Daredevil would be a character who is his alter ego and fights in the streets, instead of the sketchy outline of Matt that, by the film's account, exists largely as a way to humanize a guy who dresses in fetish gear and beats the shit out of Michael Clark Duncan (an unconfirmed retard) and Colin Farell (America's town drunk).

I hope the three-fight trend continues, because I enjoy the way it keeps the mild-mannered and the super distinct and allows both to exist on the same film. I also appreciate how it puts each battle to work advancing not only the plot, but the character both in and out of hero mode. For me, three fights is the golden rule.


Mike Lewis said...

It seems that the "Three Fight Rule" a key part of the modern action film genre. At least as far as more resent CGI-heavy films go.

I do not think that this is a problem, the formula works well for the most part. Iron Man works so well because of this narrative structure.

Talking about this was one of the hardest parts of teaching. The moment we began to break down movies in terms of a "formula" students would get hostel. So often movie critics and That Guy* attack genre films for being formulaic, which in turn means they have no value. Formulas can work both ways. On one hand Iron Man made an art out of the Three Fight Rule. Meet the Spartans et. al., on the other hand, follows a very strict formula, one that fails at funny.

That being said. Death Race is going to rock.

*you know the one who talks about having seen every movie ever nominated for Best Picture of AFI top 100 list.

kylebrown said...

While, I whole-heartedly agree with you that a superhero by no means should be a nonstop action film, and requires inaction as you put it to complete the characters, I don't like the idea of a formula to follow.

Like cooking, any jackass can follow a recipe, but the truly great cooks improvise a bit. I think, that the action to inaction ratio should be treated on a per case basis, especially if you include sequels and the like.

kylebrown said...

Wow, I really wish I could edit my posts. That last one had all of the wrong punctuation in all the wrong spots.

_J_ said...

Would we say that Spider Man 2 followed this sequence as well? Or was Spider Man 2 a variation?

"I don't like the idea of a formula to follow. Like cooking, any jackass can follow a recipe, but the truly great cooks improvise a bit."

One of the things I like to do in arguments is to take a person's position and run it out to the logical extreeme, thereby showing that position's fundamental flaw. That being said, let's talk about Uwe Boll.

Alone in the Dark, Blood Rayne, and POSTAL fully embrace your "fuck the recipe" mentality. They completely ignore the acceptable, standard, functional methods of storytelling, of movie construction, and become little more than glamorized shitfests which have no value.

There's nothing wrong with following an accepted formula, of utilizing the wheel we have rather than inventing a stupid, non-functional wheel. The problem is your "truly great cooks" point.

It's not the case that a person who improvises is a truly great cook. It IS the case that a truly great cook can improvise. But part of being a truly great cook is understanding the recipie and improvising when needed.

Which is where most movies fail. It's not the case that they take something good and improve it. It is the case that they ignore what is good and make something stupid.

As with pancakes I don't think that we need to rethink every movie being made and find a new formula; we can follow the set production methods of movies for the majority of movies being made given that these movies are not unique, substantial works of art but rather are merely productions created for the sake of continually adding content to the theatres of the world. They're just filling in the blanks left by the weekly rotation schedule.

When a movie in and of itself breaks the mold? Then it's fine to break the mold of the set method of telling a story. But when Marvel continually adapts comics to movies for the sake of turning profits? They can (and had best) follow the same method every god damned time.

The only time we need to change something is when we're making something new. If they're just making Romantic Comedy, or Action Movie, or Drama, or Comic Book Movie, or Shitty Book Adaptation then they can just follow the damned formula for the damn placeholder of a film. If someone who knows what they're doing is making something new? That's when they can change something.

We need to assess what a thing is and act according rather than let the Uwe Boll's of the world haphazardly construct theatrical shitfests under the guise of "innovation" and "art".

If a movie is just filling the hole in the theatrical rotation then follow the accepted formula and collect the ticket money. If someone who knows what they're doing wants to try something new? Let them. But ensure that they know what they're doing.

kylebrown said...

Weren't you the same person complaining that Hellboy was trite because it brought nothing new to the table?

MA17 said...

It's certainly not my intention to imply any negative connotation that might follow the word "formula". I don't think that a three fight rule is formulaic in the way that, say, an episode of Power Rangers is formulaic, but it is a convention that the genre follows for great effect. Mike says that students hate the idea of a formula, and Kyle seems to agree and that makes perfect sense, but I'm with Jay in that this rule is a formula for a wheel which does not need to be reinvented every time.

As for Spider-Man 2, and perhaps all sequels, as Kyle mentioned, I can't really see how they could follow the formula as observed. This leads me to a point I neglected to mention, and that is that these two movies are both essentially origin stories, and necessarily contain events which can not be repeated in sequels. Repeating the formula exactly would result, I think, in the negative part of any formula: sameness. If Tony started Iron Man 2 with a busted suit and had to start from scratch while imprisoned somewhere? I think that would be bad formula because it's pretty much exactly what happened the first time.

It will be interesting to see what Marvel does with sequels, because I really don't see any way that the formula as it stands could survive except that they could keep the movie to three important fights. The precise nature of those fights couldn't possibly match those of the origin stories because the origins consist of testing the untested hero, and he can only be untested once.

Also, this whole rule thing is merely the result of my watching the first two Marvel movies, and although I really like what they're doing, I don't pretend to know that this rule is something that they intentionally apply to their films. Subsequent movies might well abandon the three fights and Marvel might not even notice because they weren't purposely structuring things that way. This is only what I see in what exists.

_J_ said...

Note: Original post was on July 19 at 5:23 P.M.

I changed the date around so that it would be a part of this week since we'll hopefully be talking about it throughout the week.

_J_ said...

"Weren't you the same person complaining that Hellboy was trite because it brought nothing new to the table?"

I was complaining that Hellboy smashed Beauty and the Beast together with Spawn. I'm less concerned with the manner in which Hellboy's story is presented so much as I'm concerned with its being a cobbled together chimera story.

Also, we might be using "formula" in a few different ways. House has a formula. Iron Man has a formula. But I think the way we use "formula" when discussing and episode of House may be different from the "formula" we're talking about with the 3 fight story arc.

It might be more accurate to say that we're talking about the structure or the story arc with regard to battles. And while "formula", in our understanding, may be a convenient shorthand the word "formula", as mikey noted, has baggage attached to it that we don't want included in the conversation.

_J_ said...

What I've taken from Adam's post, replies, and other recent posts is that he's primarily concerned with the fight to story ratio. He wants the fight scenes to compliment the story and for the fights to have meaning within the plot's progression. He wants the action to be secondary to the plot in that action compliments and serves the plot.

That makes sense to me.

In terms of sequels, I think the larger question is what the roll of a sequel is. For example, Hellboy. Hellboy 1 presented the characters, explained their relationships, and presented a plot which aided the development of those. Hellboy 2, from what I understand, is people in rubber suits punching things.

If the roll of sequels is to take everything from the first movie, throw it out the window, and provide an opportunity for things punching one another? Then it doesn't make sense to mandate that it follow a set story structure. But if we think that sequels need to build on the story? Then they need to fucking do that.

If we want to watch a bunch of action scenes then we can just watch Michael Bay movies. It would be nice if non-Bay movies strived for a story moreso than explosions or rubber suit punching.

MA17 said...

Jay is correct, I'm very concerned with story/fight ratios and what they do for plot, but I would add that the proper moderation of fight scenes not only benefits the plot, but it also enhances the fights themselves. I'm not sure how to articulate this, so I'll use an example and hope that a conclusion emerges.

Tarantino is good at filling his movies (well, Death Proof, though Pulp Fiction also applies) with dialogue that establish both character and, more importantly, a sense of normality. Though often lengthy and somewhat unnatural, his conversations define what is a resting state for the people in his films so that when something exciting and fucked up happens, it seems all the more exciting and fucked up because of how normal everything was just a few minutes ago.

When a movie does nothing but display action, that action becomes normal, and it would take an impossibly huge event to provide a satisfactory climax. Tarantino, in effect, makes you look at white for so long that the eventual black looks remarkably black, while a movie like Hellboy 2 is simply filled with black which can become no blacker. That is to say, it normalizes action so early and thoroughly without committing to re-establishing real normality once the action is finished that there is virtually no way to effectively communicate the importance of any particular fight.

kylebrown said...

I stated in my first post that comic movies should not be completely action packed and should maintain a reasonable action to inaction ratio in my first post. I still maintain that the ratio needs to be addressed on a per case basis, such as the difference between the two Kill Bill films.

Roscoe said...

Are you shitting me?

Death Race looks like unholy crap.

As for the three fight formula.. there's also some tie back to the Comic Must Include Dynamic Fight Scene forumla, too.

in other news
I was complaining that Hellboy smashed Beauty and the Beast together with Spawn.

represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Beauty and the Beast, Spawn, AND Hellboy.

Trifecta, Jay.

_J_ said...

"I still maintain that the ratio needs to be addressed on a per case basis, such as the difference between the two Kill Bill films."

I think this may be one of those situations where we're saying the same thing differently.

I don't think the ratio needs to be addressed on a case per case basis. I think that we need to continually adhere to the ratio, but the ratio may manifest itself differently in different stories.

It's like your example of the Kill Bill films. The Story controlled the action in those films and the action complimented the story.

I'm not saying that if a film's story requires a 4th fight then the fight ought not to be included because the film used up its fight quota. I'm saying that we need to utilize action where necessary and not simply appeal to people's base urges by providing little more than a rubber suit punchfest just because we can.

kylebrown said...

"It's like your example of the Kill Bill films. The Story controlled the action in those films and the action complimented the story."

Have you seen the first Kill Bill?

kylebrown said...

And if anything, it is jarring in the second Kill Bill to see Beatrix and Bill in scenes of inaction. They are uncomfortable at best, and that is the end goal.