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Scorched Earth Filmmaking

By Shamus
on Tuesday Jun 13, 2006
Filed under:


I use the term “scorched earth filmmaking” to refer to movies that take established stories and kill off or greatly alter major characters for dramatic effect. Doing so might make the movie more potent, but it does so at the expense of anyone who might try to make another movie. Sure, you could make a movie adaptation of the A-Team where all of the characters die except Murdock, but if someone wants to make a sequel it’s going to be a mess. It won’t be the A-Team, it will be the A-Guy, and it will suck.

This is pretty much exactly what happened with the “Mission Impossible” franchise. In the first movie, they changed one of the members of the team into a bad guy, who killed off the rest of the team. (Except, sadly, for the character played by Tom Cruise.) Most of them died in the first few minutes of the movie. If the writers wanted to tell a story about a team of spies that is betrayed by one of its own members that’s fine, but they didn’t need the established MI characters for that; they could have just made up their own story and it would have worked just as well. This showed a great deal of contempt for fans of the show. Anyone who had any investment at all in those characters was probably pretty upset to see them all wiped out. In the subsequent movies, only one character from the original show is left, and there is almost no connection to the original show at all. Later writers couldn’t make a “Mission Impossible” movie, because there was nothing left of the original characters. So, they have been forced to come up with rather generic action movies and slap the Mission Impossible name on them.

The Batman movies did this too. Each one tried to burn through as many villians as possible, often by taking several fearsome foes and diminishing them by making them part of a sqabbling “team”. The effect was that the next person who tried to make a movie would have a smaller selection of lesser foes to draw from, and they in turn would compensate for this by using as many as they could get away with. Each film seemed less like an attempt to make a great movie and more like an attempt to make sure nobody could make another one.

The Spiderman movies are (so far) doing a great job of keeping the franchise going without sabotaging future efforts. Based on my experience with Batman, I fully expected Spider-Man 2 to have two of his major foes team up and both get killed off. This would have upped the stakes and forced the next guy to burn through three villians. Instead, they had Spidey fight just one, and they took the time to make him interesting. As a bonus, they left things open for some of the other possible foes (The Lizzard, another Goblin) so that next movie will have a lot of freedom in choosing who Spider-Man will face. This is the very opposite of scorched earth filmmaking, and I admire them for it.

Which brings me to the latest X-Men movie… (spoilers ahead)

Fair warning: I didn’t see the movie yet. I’ve read some spoilers and I’ve heard that it’s good. But that’s not the point.

It was profoundly stupid to kill off Xavier and Cyclops. So the writers wanted to make a story where the stakes were high? Fine. But the X-Men ran for decades without feeling the need to off these two crucial characters. What is the the next writer supposed to do? Xavier was the leader of the X-Men. He had the money and brainpower to keep them all together.

But even more bothersome to me was the change they made to Magneto. In the previous movies, he was a very interesting villian. He loved mutants, including his X-Men foes. Note that it was always in his power to kill off the X-Men if he wanted. But he didn’t, because of his compassion for them. He always hoped he could pursuade Xavier or his followers to come around to his way of thinking. Xavier had similar hopes, that he could win over Magneato fair and square, without using his mind powers.

Magneato’s actions were driven by his belief that mutants were now the dominant spieces on the planet, and that humans were simply very dangerous animals that needed to be killed or driven away. This aspect of his character was missing in this third installment. I’m talking about his “pawns go first” attitude and the way he carelessly threw away lesser mutants.

So now if anyone wants to make another movie, they must do so without two key characters, and with a much less interesting villain.

Scorced earth filmmaking is reprehensible. Any idiot can make a story more dramatic by sacrificing characters. The problem is, you can only sacrifice a character once. It takes a special combination of lazyness, lack of talent, and indifference to the original story and characters to make a decision like this.

A shame.

Comments (14)

  1. Gothmog says:

    Amen, brother. Couldn’t agree with you more.

  2. HC says:

    Not to praise the movie, but they didn’t even do a good scorched earth movie.

    Neither Magneto nor Xavier are dead – in fact, no one’s definitively dead. Magneto can move the chess pieces (implying Mystique is coming back too), Xavier is in the coma patient, Jean’s death can be solved as with the original Dark Phoenix, and no one saw Scott’s body. The earth was merely… warmed.

  3. Shamus says:


    Interesting. It will be a lot better if Xavier isn’t dead.

    Although, this still has the basic effects of a scorched earth movie. Now the next movie will need to burn through a half hour of screen time bringing everyone back and explaining how they survived. They need to spend time cleaning up the mess from this story before they can start the next one. They were perfectly happy to make a mess of the story, even at the expense of painting the next writer into a corner.

  4. Cineris says:

    I liked the first two Batman movies — Not sure if you’re objecting to those. The later ones devolved into trash, but in more ways than just killing off villains.

    X3 has had a bad stench about it for awhile now. I remember when the trailer came out and people saw the funeral scene and gathered that Xavier was being killed off. A stupid move, but not that surprising. Wolverine’s a popular character but from the way this movie’s been marketed you’d think he’s the most important character to the X-Men — So wrong that you wonder what they could’ve gotten right.

  5. HC says:

    If you waited through the credits there was a scene with the doctor and the empty-brained patient from Xavier’s ethics lesson – the patient turns to her, and Patrick Stewart speaks. He’s definitely alive.

  6. mark says:

    I’m not sure they’re every going to get this ensemble together again, which might explain why they were willing to do what they did. Then again, they left it very open… I agree that it was a lame attempt at dramatically upping the stakes, but the popular perception of comic books is such that I don’t think anyone believes that any of the dead characters are actually dead (plus, to repeat the earlier: we _know_ that Xavier is still alive and all the mutants who lost their powers will regain them).

    I’m betting that we’ll see a Wolverine spinoff shortly. X-Men is tough because it’s always been a large ensemble, and as you mentioned that’s the sort of thing that ruined the Batman movies (for example). In the comics, they could spend years and years fleshing out the characters. In the movies, they only have 2 hours. To me, this means the first two films were the anomoly here. X3 is exactly what I feared for the original X-Men and X2…

    I don’t know if Serenity would count as a scortched earth movie, but there were some deaths in there that really, really pissed me off. In the commentary, Whedon says he did it to highten the tension and make it seem like there was a chance our heros wouldn’t succeed, but it didn’t really do that for me (it just upset me). It’s hard to say if it would ruin future Firefly universe stories, but it was quite annoying to say the least.

  7. hank says:

    I thought ‘Batman Begins’ made up for some the earlier films, but I’ve always been more interested in Batman’s psychology than in his enemies. The earlier films didn’t disappoint me because they knocked down large numbers of villains, they disappointed me because they had a 2-dimensional Batman knocking them down.

    X-Men: who can say what will happen? Jean was dead, for a while there. Scott is probably at the bottom of the lake, peeking every once in awhile to vaporize the water into breathable air. Magneto is lying low, Xavier is lying lower… they haven’t beaten this franchise to death yet, but they will. In X-Men-IV an alien ship will appear and the few surviving mutants will need to band together to rescue the whales. Someone will figure out how to make transparent adamantium, and Wolverine will have some new tricks. Meanwhile Rogue and Frosty will have many babies, and the X-Kids franchise will live longer than you do.

  8. Shamus says:

    they haven't beaten this franchise to death yet, but they will. In X-Men-IV an alien ship will appear and the few surviving mutants will need to band together to rescue the whales. Someone will figure out how to make transparent adamantium, and Wolverine will have some new tricks. Meanwhile Rogue and Frosty will have many babies, and the X-Kids franchise will live longer than you do.

    You sir, are either a Hollywood writer, or psychic.

  9. Ethan says:

    Shamus, I love ya. *shakes head*

    What I really dislike is for someone to go on a long rant about a movie that they haven’t seen. Granted, in your current state this is really not a good possibility but you need to at least go see the movie and form your own opinion in stead of relying on a bunch of hear-say.

    I had little to no problem with X3 and liked it extremely well. I have been a comic fan since I was a kid. I realsized early on with marvel’s current movies that while the characters form the movies may share many similarities to the ones on the comic pages, they are not the same. Its like DCs multiple earths. The movies take place in a different reality than the comic book characters we read about. So, while the Magneto that you know from the comic books may not have sent the pawns in, the one from the movies does and it makes perfect sense with his character as protrayed in the previous film franchises. (Remember he was kidnapping Rogue in the first one so that he didn’t get injured by the mutant making machine? I don’t recall her ever getting much of a choice in the matter.)

    Genre staples: No one ever stays dead in comic books. Death is really a lot more like a time out into writing oblivion. So some major charcters “died”. So what? How many times has Jean died in the comics? How many times has Professor X died in the comics? They are still around. Who can lament Cyclops death anyway? What a weenie. I was glad he got aced. Listen to the interview with the actor who played him in X2. He does nothing. As another point in favor of Cyclops dying: What a way to go! He died making love to a being (who at least looked like his wife/girlfriend) of pure passion who loved him. Open and shut case in my mind.

    30 minutes of screen time of the next movie has to be dedicated to saying how they all ‘come back’? Nonsense. They tie up almost every loose end before X3 is over. Every mutant will get its powers back. The scene where Magneto is playing chess near the golden gate bridge tells you everything you need to know about every mutant who lost their powers to the ‘cure’ during the movie. If you watched the whole movie, then you know what happened to the Professor. The only two who aren’t accounted for are Jean and Scott. Guess what? A chunk of X3 was dedictaed to Jean coming back. Its all part of the story that they’re weaving. I don’t know how much its been done in the past but an X-men IV being successful is highly likely. I know I’m on board. Perhaps the most important factor is this. My wife didn’t grow up reading comic books. She only knows the characters perfunctorily (which may or may not be a word) through me. She loved X2 and X3. In fact she said that she’d go see X3 in the theatre again. High praise indeed.

  10. Shamus says:

    Yes you are right: In an ideal world I would have seen the movie before writing this. For reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, I’m really not in a position to do that just now, and I wanted to get this scorched earth idea out there while the movie was still in theaters. Once I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get to the theater before the movie was gone, I decided to put this essay up and take my lumps from people who have seen the movie.

    Certainly my opinion of all of the above may change once I get to see it. (I wonder when it will come out on video? If I’m very lucky, it will show up in the cheap theaters in a couple of months and I’ll be able to get out to see it then.)

  11. Ethan says:

    I find it extremely likely that it will hit the cheap seats up at the mall after it has run its course out @ Regal. Normal run time of movie at the theater is a month or so. Stop smacking yourself around and heal so you can see it.

  12. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Actually they killed 3 characters in X3.Jean died as well.But X-men come out as a great trilogy now,and theres no need to make any sequels.If they leave it like this it will be great.But I doubt that theyll do such a thing.

  13. AdamB says:

    Just to see if you’re actually paying attention. Reading this post about three badguys in Spiderman 3 seems to be kinda prophetic. Though they didn’t do 2 bad guys in Spiderman 2.

  14. […] or events willy nilly or even on the fly.  (There’s probably room in there to complain about scorched earth storytelling and Serenity, but I’m still too annoyed about that movie to put together anything cohesive, and well, it […]

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  1. By Exigo Ergo Sum « Tish Tosh Tesh on Monday Apr 9, 2012 at 7:31 am

    […] or events willy nilly or even on the fly.  (There’s probably room in there to complain about scorched earth storytelling and Serenity, but I’m still too annoyed about that movie to put together anything cohesive, and well, it […]

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