I’m not just a writer and a pretty face. I am also a serious comic book, anime, novel and movie fan. I love the cinema. I have my favorite directors, favorite scenes and beloved scores. Movies are a topic I love to talk about and one my friends have heard me talk about quite a bit. But today, we’re here to talk about one lovely topic that writers and movie fans are all too familiar with: tension and suspense.
So here’s a little context as to why I’m writing this little piece.
As I mentioned before, I am a comic book fan, so I was excited to see Deadpool when the movie made its way to theaters after literally years of hype. I saw the movie with a friend and I liked the movie a lot! Except for one small problem: there was no tension whatsoever.
[Spoilers for lots of things ahead.]
Of course, we all know Deadpool the character: a wisecracking mercenary who cannot die. He literally cannot die. He fights and befriends Death (He actually starts to date her later on. Yes, Death’s a she and she’s apparently super hot.). He has fantastic healing powers and regeneration abilities. He’s indestructible. So when the movie comes out and has a rather generic plot line of insert bad antagonist here, in Ajax, there was no surprise in the movie. He literally cannot die. He’s gonna and he does defeat Ajax. He’s gonna and does get the girl. He’s gonna and does survive the movie for the sake of wallets and fan dreams everywhere. Which led me to the statement I made leaving the movie: it was the best most pointless movie I’ve ever seen.
And here’s what I mean by that. The movie’s great and Ryan Reynolds is amazing. It’s hilarious, dark and brilliant but there’s no tension. Even though the fight scenes are grand, it wasn’t a surprise what was going to happen and that disappoints me.
Ready for another example? Many of you may know my love of the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service and my adoration of the complex characters, great story and amazing action scenes (this movie does have one of my favorite fight sequences of all time). And to see a movie where the main character dies almost immediately stunned me absolutely and the weight of that death remained throughout the entire film and unto several rewatching ( I can recite most of the movie now.). So you can imagine my disappointment to know that this character will so quickly be returning in the sequel damn near broke my fangirl heart.
Beyond being a writer, reader and creative I am fundamentally a feeling and empathetic human being. I watch movies and read comics to vent and to experience catharsis and release. There are wonderful highs and lows to seeing a character face tension, watch suspense build and then gush with emotional release. (Stop snickering, it’s a good metaphor.)
But the immense irony for me is that despite my love of movies with suspense and tension: I am a serious comic book and anime fan, both media that are devoid of any suspension of disbelief and a total lack of tension. Anime is full of characters that refuse to die. Comic books have heroes that are created full of deus ex machina. I could list for days characters in comics and anime that annoy the heck out of me when it comes to that (and you are welcome to ask me about that). It started to lead to a cliche that my friends and I discuss quite frequently: You can’t kill the main character. And that’s very true. For instance, in the anime Naruto, the audience is faked out more often than not trying to pretend like any harm could come to the titular character. So even though the battles may be intense, they may be bloody and they may be suspenseful: it’s obvious who is going to win; normally the kid who the show is named after.
This is also probably a good time to mention that when I say I love suspense, I do not actually like horror that much. My issue with horror? A lack of common sense. Actually, watching American Horror Story: Freakshow with my friend Taylor reminded me exactly of my issues with horror. There is no situation where a terrifying clown gets to walk up to me and say nothing and I’m not running away shrieking like a pterodactyl. I’m not going to sit there and try to talk to it. I won’t ask what it’s doing. I won’t inquire if my significant other hired it. I’m running. I’m waiting in the car. I’m waiting and honking the horn waiting for my partner to get in the car so we can drive off to safety. I’m done. Suspension of disbelief are lost when a mysterious force knocks over not one but two glasses and then writes crass messages on my mirrors. So while I may love suspense and thought-provoking scenes, there’s nothing that I really enjoy about immense amounts of torture, gore and blatant attempts to get a rise out of the audience. I do though, love effects and I like seeing what is practical and what is computer generated.
So by now, I’m assuming you must think me of some sort of masochist. A person who claims to love suspense but also loves comic books? Hear me out. I do love suspense. But I love suspense in a form that no longer exists.
We live in a binge era of media. You can watch an entire series in a day or two. When I was growing up (long long ago with the dinosaurs and Marshmallow Fruity Pebbles) we had weekly serialization. So even though I knew InuYasha wasn’t going to die, there was enough suspense that I had to wait until next week to figure out HOW he was going to survive. I may have known that Batman was going to defeat the Joker but what he had to do to make that happen would have to wait until next Saturday. Now in a world where I can watch all of Bleach in a few nights (I have no idea why I would do that), there’s really no suspense. The next episode loads in a few seconds and clearly Ichigo’s still alive so he pulled it off SOMEHOW.
And it isn’t just the death of suspension of disbelief and suspense that I miss. I also miss the era of great storytelling. I’ll use Batman again because I’m on a superhero kick and I love Batman. I grew up with Batman: The Animated Series, probably one of the best animated series of all times with some of the best writing and most splendid animation and voice acting (come down to the comments, fight me over this.) We all know that Batman would overcome the Penguin but how he did it, all the twists and turns, the fantastic humanization of a monolithic character made the episode flow so well that it almost didn’t matter that the ending was probably rushed, brimming with deus ex machina and maybe even terrible.
The storytelling and the action are some of the reasons I abandoned many Western TV shows and sold my essence to anime and manga at the tender age of 12. (Think of the scene where Ariel signs away her voice to Ursula in The Little Mermaid) but as anime began to falter and consequences stopped mattering I began to grow bored even with the bright flashes of violence and exotic charm of Eastern media. Death means nothing if it isn’t a permanent concern but a meager inconvenience. If a character dies more often than they get to smile and have lunch with their friends and family, the weight of the series is suddenly removed.
As a fan, I’m used to death not mattering but in movies especially I think death has to matter. It mattered so much when Jason Todd died. It mattered so much when Barbara was shot and crippled by the human embodiment of madness. It was remarkably poignant watching Barry Allen and Bruce Wayne struggle with the demons of parents taken too soon. But then due to the greed of movie executives and poor writers, Superman returns immediately after “sacrificing” himself to Doomsday. Captain America remarkably rises from the dead once more after a difficult fight against Hydra. None of these movies have any punch left to them after years of fake outs and fading to black. And maybe it’s another issue of pacing. We get a superhero movie just about every month now so none of the things from the last film are easily forgotten. And even though this has been superhero heavy, this goes for lots of movies. This conversation actually came up from a brief encounter with a young man at the local video store. We were commenting on a Jason Bourne movie and I said that I didn’t dislike the action but I struggled with the fact that we know there’s going to be another movie. No one’s turning down that paycheck so we know that Bourne can’t die.
When a plot is perpetuated and suspension of disbelief is destroyed for greed, then it’s the most inexcusable.
So why do I love suspense? Why do I love to be lead to the edge of my seat and left there like unceremoniously left there like the last rose petal in Beauty and the Beast? Because the product of a difficult life is loving the story of overcoming hardship. A good ending isn’t always a happy one, it’s just one that satisfies readers and watchers. What matters is earning an ending and suspense helps keep a story honest about earning its ending. When a character goes on a journey with you, through highs and lows, doesn’t it feel rewarding? Isn’t it amazing when Harry finally masters the Patronus charm? Isn’t is tragic when Bertha dies but in her death she frees Mr. Rochester? All of those moments were fantastically suspenseful and enriched the story beyond measure.
That was a heck of a post! If you want to ask me about some of my favorite suspenseful moments and cliffhangers, feel free to drop me a comment!