There was a time when I could buy the argument of a fictional work being fun for its own sake. Specatcle that aims to be nothing but spectacle has its place, usually in the skies above parking lots as fireworks explode in the darkness. But in the arenas of storytelling, be it printed or in motion, characters that feel human and storylines that lead to a satisfactory end in paths audiences can follow will slay works based entirely on spectacle every time.
To illustrate my point, let’s compare the films Flash Gordon and Scott Pilgrim Versus The World.
Both are based on printed comic adventures. Both feature arguably normal human beings thrown into abnormal situations. Both films have bright, splashy color pallettes and kickass soundtracks. And both are largely considered cult classics having not performed well at the box office. Of the two of them, I would say that Scott Pilgrim is the superior work by a large margin.
I’ve reviewed both movies, and looking back on my take on Flash Gordon, I can see why I was so favorably disposed towards it. It’s unashamedly fun. Camp for camp’s sake was pretty big in the 80s, as evidenced by this and Rocky Horror Picture Show among others. Rocky Horror survives due to its cult camp appeal and the fact that large groups see it together. Flash Gordon is also better viewed with a group, if only so there are others with whom you can laugh at the production.
Comics and their heroes tend to be silly in one way or another, but embracing that silliness can be a delicate operation. Making the premise of a man wearing the flag of his country or a woman doing acrobatic assaults in impractical outfits work as a plausible, relatable story takes effort and thought. Opting for total abandonment of coherence for the sake of spectacle is much easier. Flash Gordon does the latter. I still think Max vod Sydow’s Ming the Merciless is a delightfully callous villain, the Queen soundtrack can be enjoyed outside of the context of the film, and Brian Blessed turned loose on his fellow actors is fun to watch, but there are major problems a production based on campy set pieces cannot overcome. Characters have no arcs, no growth. The plot shambles aimlessly, forgotten for the sake of the visuals which have not all aged well. It’s a relic of a different age, and the wrinkles do unfortunately show. I still think it’s possible to have fun just sitting back and watching Flash Gordon, but your brain is not engaged while doing so.
By comparison, Scott Pilgrim balances its sillier elements with good character growth and interaction and a plot that can be followed without difficulty. Scott’s struggle to overcome his own insecurities is enhanced by his battles with Ramona’s evil exes, rather than overwhelmed by those battles. His relationship with Ramona also has some weight to it, despite its supernatural trappings, and there are even realistic relationship with Knives and Kim, to say nothing of the advice and support of Wallace. Rather than laughing at Scott Pilgrim, we laugh with it. While the far-flung moons of Mongo feel distant and alien, and not in a good way, Toronto and the young people in it are relatable and realistic, high-octane psychic kung-fu battles notwithstanding.
Could a better story be made of Flash Gordon? Certainly. If Flash had flaws to overcome, doubts to face, the freedom to learn more about the other characters outside of broad and ill-defined characterstics, he’d be a better hero for us to get behind. Let his relationships with Dale, Zarkov, the princess, the Hawkmen, even Ming develop naturally. I say keep the garish colors and the operatic rock soundtrack, but make this plot and these characters mean something other than a vehicle for the set pieces. It’s the 21st century, after all; there’s no reason we can’t have unique spectacles that also engage us on the basic levels of storytelling.
Dumb fun will arguably always have its place, be it in mindless shooting games like Painkiller, Space Marine, or Serious Sam, or films that are great fodder for parties with friends, like Flash Gordon, most of the Star Wars films, the Grindhouse movies, or most flicks starring Arnold or Sly. But to ask for something substantial in the story department or some decent characters we can get behind is not a tall order. The Avengers would simply not have worked as well as it does if the admittedly silly superheroes who star in it didn’t have realized characters with complex relationships and understandable motivations. Oh, it would have been fun, certainly… but as it stands, it’s both fun AND engaging. It’s a spectacle that’s also smart.
Don’t ever underestimate your audience. Keep your writing broad and simple at your own peril. The more you engage the reader’s brain, the more you make them think about and relate to your characters, the more they’ll want. It’s not unreasonable for today’s audiences to expect, nay, demand their entertainment be smart as well as entertaining. And we, as entertainers, should be all too happy to oblige.