Before you all burn me at the stake, I eat my steak (The moo-kind) medium. And now that I’m talking about steak during Ramadan, I’ve successfully made myself hungry too. Enough of this culinary madness, it’s time to talk about cinematic stakes, the kind that the MCU lacks, and the DCEU thinks its all about making the screen darker!
So what are stakes? No, not the meaty kind, so vegans you may continue reading this. Narrative stakes create tangible consequences for the protagonist. It’s what they stand to lose on the journey ahead. No, it doesn’t mean people HAVE to die, but the protagonist needs something to lose. This makes the growth of the character more compelling and makes the narrative feel more real.
Speaking of feeling real, I am CRAVING some wings. Again, I need to stop talking about food! What really drives these stakes is how real they feel. And this is where the MCU fails a little too often. The world can be ending, but we know your hero isn’t going to falter. Your boy got you. Sorry, nope. Doesn’t feel like a tangible threat.
Let’s dive into the “bad stakes” and before all you MCU die-hards come for me with your pitchforks, you have been warned. Let me butcher Doctor Strange. The movie has a by-the-numbers villain who just “threatens the safety of our dimension.” The question must be asked is, are you afraid of what could happen? Yeah, no… Burberry Cramplesnutch isn’t letting that happen. More importantly, Dormammu and Kaecilius don’t threaten him with anything more the dimensional domination, and as mention, that ain’t happening. It feels superfluous.
And now its time to dig into some real meat…I mean stakes. Recently, I watched a movie called Headshot, starring Iko Uwais. If you don’t know I’m a HUGE FAN and would appreciate meeting him. BACK TO THE POINT.[SPOILERS AHEAD] Headshot isn’t a great film, but what it has is believable stakes. When Ailin is taken hostage, you genuinely fear for her life and begin to question if Ishmael has to sacrifice himself to save her. This is enhanced with the bone-crunching fight choreography to set up this tension. Can he save her? Is he good enough to do it? I’m not telling you.
Stakes are a vital part of the protagonist’s journey. It’s the ever-looming threat and the crushing reality that you can’t have everything your way. Sometimes you have to lose and that’s just the harsh truth. This is can endear us to a protagonist, or make us fear a well-developed antagonist. Great stakes can turn a straightforward action thriller into a white-knuckled edge-of-your-seat experience. They can add gravity to a drama. And generally, they make films a hell of a lot better.