Jun 27, 2013

Defeating the Villain After Saving the Day

First, a reminder that I'm looking for people to help with the promotion of my new book, Silent Oath. Details for those who are interested can be found here.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for Lord of the Rings, Man of Steel, and the Avengers movie.

You've been reading a book or watching a movie, it's the final few pages or minutes, and the hero stops the villains plans, saving the day! It's dramatic and emotional and a fantastic payoff.

Then the hero and the villain face off and have another fight.

Does this seem strange to anyone else? I'll be honest, I hadn't really given much consideration to how this can impact the story until I saw Man of Steel.

At the movie's climax, Superman destroys a Kryptonian terraforming device which General Zod is using to turn Earth into a New Krypton. Meanwhile, the US Air Force uses the ship that took Superman to Earth to send Zod's forces back to the Phantom Zone. There's a massive explosion, lots of CGI and destruction, and the world is saved. The tension is released.

Then Superman and Zod have a lengthy battle across what's left of Metropolis.

The thing is, by this stage in the movie, the audience has already seen colossal levels of destruction, virtually wiping out half the city and surely taking the lives of tens of thousands of people with it. Superman has saved the world at the cost of all those citizens of Metropolis. The conflict has reached the height of its stakes and come to an end.

What is left to provide drama for the fight between Superman and Zod?

Zod has already been defeated. His threat, his power within the narrative, is gone. He swears to make humanity suffer in order to punish Superman for opposing him, but with his plans undone, he has no way to do that on a grand scale.

It needs to be personal. But there's nothing personal there. Zod killed Jor'El. But Superman never knew his real father and Jor'El was resigned to death anyway, so that lacks drama. We're left with just another fight scene, and while it reveals that this version of Superman is willing to kill an enemy to protect people, even this rings hollow because Superman has made little to no effort to save anyone other than Lois and his mother since putting on the suit. In fact, he crashes the ship Zod is flying, sending it through several buildings and possibly killing even more people.

Other stories have opted to have a seeming secondary threat arise and be defeated following the main threat. In Lord of the Rings, the Scourging of the Shire takes place after the defeat of Sauron. With the greatest evil in Middle Earth defeated, a depowered Sauron and a band of orcs pose little threat to the heroes.

Compare this to the recent Avengers movie. Throughout the final battle, the Avengers fight off hordes of invading Chitari and even fight Loki himself.

Once the Chitari invasion is stopped, however, with their mothership destroyed and the portal closed, we cut to the interior of Stark Tower. Loki gets up from his Hulk beat-down, and sees the Avengers standing together.

And he surrenders.

There's no added fight scene, no attempt to drag out the story. And it works. Loki is already beaten. His plan has failed and his ability to threaten the heroes has been completely taken away.

The more I think about it, the more I'm in favour of the big "save the day" moment being the end of the climax, and the personal defeat of the villain either coming before it, or being a part of it.

What do you think? Would you rather the tension was kept high throughout, with the villain taken down before or during the defeat of their ultimate plan? Or do you like seeing a more intimate final confrontation after the climax?


  1. I'm hoping the sequel to Man of Steel features Superman experiencing remorse over all the deaths in the first film. Superman has hitherto been the ultimate boyscout, there's no WAY the Superman we all know would have killed Zod like that. As you say though, Man of Steel is his first time wearing the cape in the new continuity. The ideals haven't fully formed yet. There's a narrative arc there and I'm expecting good things from it.

    Anyway, the battle after the final battle is there to say something about the villain. It's the big reveal of the fatal flaw. Never Giving Up is admirable in a hero character, hubristic in a villain. The Scouring of the Shire was a dick move on Saruman's part. He's a petty man who blames others on his misfortune and follows strength more than reason. This brings his downfall. The Scouring of the Shire is Saruman's tantrum. It's not enough that his cause is defeated, he has to be humiliated as well.

    Loki surrenders because he's canny enough to know there's nothing to be gained by having his ass handed to him by the assembled Avengers. He knows there's not a prison built he can't trick his way out of. He's a calculating villain and he makes the strategic decision. He'll be back.

    Zod has skin in the game. Zod forces Superman to kill him in Man of Steel because he can't accept that Supes has the right of it. Kal'El wasn't the Last Son of Krypton until the end of the movie. There were 80,000 kryptonian embryos on that World Engine. Enough to start a new race.

    Kal'El murdered them *all*.

    The last two members of the Kryptonian race are Zod and Kal'El. All Zod has left is death or vengeance, he's got every motivation to get into that fight.

    Of course, he could have just terraformed an uninhabited planet, or realised it's good to have superpowers and seeded the Kryptonians on earth without terraforming it. Shit, they could worked out a treaty to terraform the moon and had the best of both worlds (snare drum). The tragedy of Man of Steel is that an 'everybody wins' outcome could have been achieved if anyone had actually listened to and considered the other side.

    The battle after the final battle exists for a reason (tropes are not good, tropes are not bad). Done well it's an intense scene to end a villain's story on, done poorly it's extending a conflict unnecessarily for the sake of being cool.

    1. I'd thought it was the codex (implanted into Superman's cells) that contained the genetic code of future Kryptonians to be born? The world engine was just there to terraform Earth. There were no embryos to be lost.

      You make good points, though. It should say something about the villain, and the hero, really. Like I said, it needs to get personal, and I didn't feel that in Man of Steel.

      Interesting thing about Superman killing Zod, though.

      He did it in Superman II. And that time, it wasn't to save lives. He'd already taken away Zod's powers and made him as weak as a human. Then he picked him up and tossed him into an abyss to die.

    2. Pretty sure they said something about embryos on the world engine, I could be misremembering it though (I may have fallen asleep for a little while in the cinema)). Either way Superman's responsible for the final destruction of the Kryptonian race in Zod's eyes.

      In Superman II it's ambiguous whether or not Zod dies or if it's Superman's intent to kill him, it's much less explicit than it is in Man of Steel.

    3. No, they needed Superman's body so the genetic information could be extracted and fed into the baby-spawning-machine.

      But yes, either way, Superman wiped out the last remnants of Krypton.

    4. http://www.shortpacked.com/2013/comic/book-15/01-about-face/theliewetellourselves/

  2. I for one like to be a period of falling tension after the climactic point in any story, but that might just be me.

    1. So, you like seeing the "mopping up" process, so to speak? With lesser threats being wrapped up?

  3. I like the way they did it in The Avengers. That made more sense to me. But, I certainly can understand the motivation of a villain who has had everything taken away from him/her and that last ditch effort for revenge on the person who was instrumental in foiling their plans. Sometimes it works and others it doesn't.

    And sometimes, the intent is simply to milk the battling for the viewers, in my opinion.


    1. See that's what I'd be afraid of if I tried something similar myself. Would I just be dragging out the end, with the reader wanting me to hurry up and get it over with?

    2. I think you should trust your own storytelling ability.

  4. Ha! That way lies hubris. I love my editor for a reason!

  5. I like both...if they're well-done. But I'm a little old-fashioned in that I do like the comic book-style big fight right at the climax and then a quick goodbye. Post climax is...anticlimactic. :) But they can both be done really well, and I've seen it both ways.

    1. I think I'd find it very hard to write a book that didn't have a climactic fight scene at the end!