Why Are Modern Blockbusters Full Of Pointless Action Scenes?

Why Are Modern Blockbusters Full Of Pointless Action Scenes?

2019 saw the release of the live-action Aladdin, a film that did not need to be made under any circumstances. But because Disney is intent on being literally the only entertainment company on the planet, it was made anyway. And near the end, Iago, the angsty bird Gilbert Gottfried voiced in the original, is transformed into a giant monster to more effectively chase the good guys. Now don't get me wrong, a lot of movies could be improved with goddamn pterodactyls. But the original film was pretty good without Aladdin vs. Rodan, and this addition only seemed to be there to pad out the running time from 1992's brisk 90 minutes to 128. That's over 25% more movie.

It reminded me of a scene in the 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, in which King Louie goes from a goofy cartoon orangutan to a King-Kong-sized "Gigantopithecus." He too features in an extended chase scene. And again, without context, it's kinda cool. At one point, Louie stands up and bits of fur are still stuck to his seat. That's dope.

But in the context of the movie, what does it accomplish? King Louie mentions a character's death to Mowgli, but did we need $20 million worth of CGI for that? Well, here's one thing it accomplishes: The Jungle Book remake is 28 minutes longer than the 1967 original, in case you were watching that and thought, "This would be good if it had another 1 1/2 acts added to it."

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Suddenly, Everything Is Longer And Noisier

If you've seen these and any other blockbuster films recently, you may have noticed a trend. They're full of sequences, often action scenes, that really don't need to be there and only serve to bloat the running time. And these aren't being added in films where the action choreography is a crucial part of the storytelling, like John Wick or Mad Max. They're in stuff like Spider-Man: Far From Home, wherein a bus full of Peter Parker's classmates gets pursued by one of the film's many lookalike drones and Peter has to comically try to stop it. After that's done, the characters are all right back where they were before it happened.

These are the scenes that don't change the stakes, reveal more about the characters, or advance the plot. They're just more movie, as if studios have decided that audiences are judging these films purely on quantity. That's a pretty substantial change in how movies are created. It used to be a cardinal rule in screenwriting that if a scene didn't absolutely need to be there, it shouldn't even make it into the next draft of the script. Structure was everything, and every penny counted. They even took it too far at times. That's why for decades you had executives saying shit like, "Why can't The Lord Of The Rings just be one two-hour movie?" When Steven Spielberg was considering directing Harry Potter, the first thing he wanted to do was see how the books could be cut down and combined.

But now we have films like The Hobbit trilogy, where what played in theaters felt like the DVD extended cuts, lengthening scenes like the escape from Goblin Town and the ride in the barrels until they were exhausting roller coasters rather than coherent, precise action that drove the story forward. They also tossed in romantic subplots, shout-outs to the original trilogy, and pretty much anything else they could think of to make the movies seem ... bigger, I guess?

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So Who's To Blame Here?

I'm not saying we can blame this all on James Cameron, but he certainly didn't help. The man whose first blockbuster was a mere 107 minutes long, with barely a wasted frame, soon dedicated his life to seeing just how much movie audiences would tolerate in one sitting.

In 1997, studio heads were panicking over Cameron's Titanic, thinking that its three-hour runtime would be its doom, since that would lead to fewer showings per day (and thus fewer ticket sales) and bore teenage audiences. Meanwhile, two of the other big blockbusters of the year, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Men In Black, ran at 129 minutes and 98 minutes, respectively. Titanic ended up grossing more than both those films combined.

From that point forward, it seems like every director has had a trump card in the "Does this pointless subplot absolutely need to be there?" argument. It's not like they're wrong from the money side of things. The Hobbit films all grossed around a billion dollars each, and Avengers: Endgame almost earned a billion dollars for each of its hours. Hell, let's make it four next time!

That's obviously not to say that no long movie earns its runtime. Hollywood has always had epics (some so long that they needed intermissions), and the great ones feel like they're still over far too soon. I'm specifically talking about action-adventures that send the characters on pointless chases and plot detours, as if they're afraid audiences will riot if they don't get at least 150 minutes of film. I'm talking about the thought process that somehow gave us 165 minutes of Transformers 4. Think back to the 1989 Batman, which cut a sequence that was supposed to introduce Robin because they knew it would only take focus away from the story they were trying to tell. If they'd made it today, you know that shit would stay in.

But is this what audiences want in 2020, or is it what directors want and audiences tolerate, the way we put up with CGI that somehow looks worse than it did 20 years ago? Because as far as I'm concerned, you're just turning my post-movie light jog to the bathroom into a sprint.

Daniel Dockery is a writer and editor for Cracked. You can find him on Twitter.

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