Can the Stakes Be Too High?

One of the questions we as authors (and critics) ask ourselves (and others) is: What can we (you) do to raise the stakes? We put pressure on our protagonists and force them to face seemingly unsurmountable odds so that they can succeed or fail, and, in so doing, grow and change.

But can the stakes ever be too high?

I've been thinking about this a bit recently in regard to why so many superhero movies fall flat for me.

A while back, I saw an insightful video that analyzes The Dark Knight. The video breaks down the elements that make the Joker the perfect antagonist for that film. It also sheds light on the film's climax. The stakes were high, but they were realistic. Throughout the whole Dark Knight trilogy, in fact, the stakes were never higher than the fate of Gotham. In The Dark Knight, specifically, the climactic battle is over a few hundred lives on a couple of ferries (at least ostensibly; it was, as the video points out, also over the "soul of Gotham"). One or both of the ferries could go down in flames. We expect Batman to win (because that's why we watch superhero movies), but, because the stakes are so realistic, we have legitimate reasons to fear he might fail. And this is precisely what makes the moment so tense.

Compare this to one of the many films in which the hero(es) battle(s) for the fate of the planet/galaxy/universe/whatever. In those cases, there is no real chance that the hero can fail. S/he has to win, because what other option is there? The stakes are so high that they become unbelievable and, thus, un-relatable -- especially when those fate-of-the-world battles result in epic CGI fests that fall victim to all the problems associated with that. What we get is a cartoon of action with unrealistic stakes.

I was thinking about this a bit with regards to Wonder Woman, which I just saw for the second time last night. (WARNING: here be major spoilers.) For a movie that employs the fate-of-the-world final scenario, I thought it was a solid film. There are so many things to like about it (Gal Gadot's performance, the protagonist, the chemistry, the production, etc.). In terms of a superhero movie, the whole fate-of-the-world trope wouldn't really be a problem, except for how it influenced my relationship to the characters. Wonder Woman's climactic battle was against Ares for the fate of the world; Steve Trevor's was a suicide mission to prevent the death of a much smaller number of people. In that sense, his sacrifice was more relatable and more believable. In that moment, I felt like the movie became more about his sacrifice than about Wonder Woman's mission to save the world. His moment co-opted hers in her movie. This was short-lived, and her battle and her victory ended up being more significant in the story world, but in terms of my connection to believable stakes, I'm sad to admit that Trevor's sacrifice provided more of that connection.

It's unfortunate that so many superhero movies employ this trope, especially when there are such good examples of movies that do not. As I mentioned, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Deadpool (although it is CGI heavy), and how could I not mention Mad Max: Fury Road? Granted, the fate of the citadel does change as a result of the events in Mad Max, but that isn't the initial conflict. And the reason that movie looks so good is its refreshing lack of CGI. What little CGI there is is used to remove props for the practical effects and to add stylized coloring, as is evident in this behind the scenes compilation.

In the current climate of constant one-up-ship, I don't see this fate-of-the-world trope changing, but, for me, I think it's definitely something to consider when creating stakes for our worlds. Perhaps, rather than creating the highest stakes possible, we should consider the extent to which we can make the stakes best fit our protagonists' transformation(s) and be a little careful about pushing them to unbelievable limits.

(After I wrote this, I saw this video, which makes some of the same points)