Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Blame Dan Brown

It’s no secret that the coolness of various genres tends to ebb and flow. Currently, we’re riding a long wave of superhero flicks, but if you’ll recall the late 90’s, disaster movies were all the rage. The popularity of a category of entertainment usually begins with a breakout hit, and then proceeds along a path of sequels and copycats. The question I’ve been asking lately is, what has lead to the recent wave of pseudo-religious action movies and videogames?

What’s that? You didn’t notice the wave? Neither did I, at first. What I’m specifically referring to is the idea in entertainment lately that angels and other holy beings are bad ass brawlers with a sword in one hand and a sub machine gun in the other. The most high profile offering from this lineup is probably the flop-tacular “Legion”, which appeared to have all the appeal of another straight to DVD Resident Evil sequel, with none of the style and mood that made Constantine successful, if only on the cult level. As near as I can tell it’s about an angel who defects from an angry god in order to protect humanity from some old-testament style wrath. A fun idea, certainly, but poorly executed.

Video games are where we’ve seen this genre really explode lately. Bayonetta is a game in which you play a gun-toting witch in an outfit so tight some considerably potent dark magic must have been needed to get in to it. Using (count ‘em) four pistols, you fight your way through increasingly bizarre heavenly creatures, all of whom have creepy gothic appearances, which all those renaissance painters somehow neglected to include.

Darksider’s is another entry. Here we learn that angels actually prefer a broadsword and head to toe medieval armor to a harp and robes. There’s some kind of apocalypse going on which pits said angels against a lineup of equally intense looking demons, and fun times ensue.

The trend continues with the new Dante’s Inferno game. I have not read the original Epic Poem, I must admit, but I can assume with some confidence that there was considerably less ass kicking.

There is in fact a point which I am slowly driving at here, and that is that all these action franchises which are based around the Judaeo-Christian religious structure require one thing to make them even remotely palatable: Tons and tons of style. That’s all there is to it. The material is already there: prophets, plagues, commandments from on high, fire and brimstone, heaven and hell, supernatural beings of unimaginable power, temptation, devotion, sacrifice. The bible would be a completely rockin’ read if not for its total lack of style! What the creators of these games and movies attempt to do is latch on to a little piece of this grandiose religion, oozing with epic potential, and slather a healthy dose of style on top of it. Strap some pistols to Bayonetta’s high heels. Give Constantine a huge gun shaped like a cross. Apply some moody lighting and hire an eccentric art director who’s seen too many old German films and you’re well on your way.

But there’s a problem. Drawing from good source material, and having a strong style are not enough. Sure that is the bare minimum to entertain, but without something more your feature is quickly forgotten as just another mindless entry in the genre. Turns out you still need to include those oft-forgotten extras, like compelling characters a well laid out story, and thematic punch to come up with something truly memorable. Some of the features I’ve discussed so far do this better than others, but I think it’s important for producers to remember that popular topics and style alone do not make for great pieces of entertainment. At best, they can be a cheap thrill, but they will never earn a permanent spot in the consumer’s heart without going the extra mile.


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Blogger Brian said...

Would you consider the God of War series as belonging to this religious/action wave? Sure it's drawing on Greek mythology rather than Christian elements, but like you said, the engaging material is already there. I haven't played the games at all, but from what I hear they did quite well stylistically and actually crafted a solid narrative. Seems like a good example of this "wave" that has enough merit of its own to stand apart from the crowd.

March 30, 2010 at 12:45 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Interesting you should bring it up! I seriously considered including GoW in the entry as an example of doing it RIGHT, but opted not to since it draws from Greek mythology. GoW succeeds for many reasons, one of which is a great story that really feels just like it could have come from true Greek mythology. Kratos' journeys are pretty reminiscent of Perseus', or Odysseus'. They took some of the best elements from existing stories and wove a fun new narrative around them. Beautiful art work, top notch gameplay, and enjoyable (if over the top) characters make it all come together. I can't wait to get my hands on GoW 3.

March 30, 2010 at 1:55 PM  
Blogger Lauren said...

Don't Pokémon and Zelda draw heavily from Shinto and other far-east religious practices? Obviously they're more like GoW in that they're not Abrahamic. But in bringing up GoW, we may open the door for ancestral worship-driven plots and shrines and such.

I only played the NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits demo, but that seems to fit the genre, too. Now I'm just rambling.

March 31, 2010 at 2:19 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

Man, remember "Hellboy"? Hellboy was awesome. Then he killed all the monsters. And something about the Tunguska event. Hellboy.

March 31, 2010 at 10:30 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I love Hellboy. I considered bringing him up too.

April 5, 2010 at 9:02 AM  

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