I’m in the staffroom of my school, laughing with Jo about the original Transformers film. You know, the one set to the beat of some pounding Judas Priest. The one that – through what I can only assume were access to Dark Forces – managed to get Orson Welles and Leonard Nimoy to voice, respectively, a sentient devil-planet, and the universe’s most ithyphallic robot.
Nowadays, they only sell toys that look like this on LoveHoney.
So we’re laughing about how goofy the Junkions are, just as Julian walks into the room. Now Julian is sixty-two. He is a Serious Man, who has done Serious Science for Serious Companies. Julian is not a man given to whimsy or silliness, and I mumble the words BA-WHEEP-GAH-NAH-WHEEP-NINNY-BAH just as he walks past. Regarding me with the expression of a Victorian industrialist given to pondering ways to increase production by burning children more efficiently, he looks at me, then smiles. In the most matter-of-fact-voice imaginable he simply says:
‘Ahhh, the universal greeting.’
I’m not a fan of Michael Bay’s Transformers films.
While the 80’s animated film is – once you take the nostalgia goggles off – honestly not that great, it’s still quite charming. Bay’s films on the other hand are almost the empirical definition of terrible. It’s not just that they’re each individually longer than the War of The Roses. It’s not just that they’re unrepentantly racist and sexist and homoantagonistic. It’s not just that they’ve got a horrible cast made of a 50:50 split between the literal worst actors in the world and people who should honestly know better.
It’s that the action is so boring.
Huge scenes of hideously over-greebled robots smashing into each other while the camera spins and pans and twirls and spins and AAAAAHHHHHHH MY HEAD MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP
It’s like watching a jar of paper clips having a seizure.
There are lots of reasons that Bay’s ‘Transformer’ films fail harder than an alcoholic baboon taking his driving test after three nights of hitting the tequila like it owed him money. However, for me, the biggest weakness is that the action is just confusing. The robots all look the same, they all move the same and everything’s always spinning to you can’t get a bead on a thing. Even in those few moments when things are mercifully still, the camera’s so close you simply can’t see what’s going on… And even if you could, there’s enough particulate, debris and smoke smashing you in the face you might as well just be watching a YouTube clip of two buildings making furious, meth-fuelled love.
Transformers is, to quote The Bard, sound and fury, signifying nothing and the definition of Bad Action.
Sex and Violence as Storytelling Components.
Back in 1997, David Cronenberg released a film called ‘Crash’ to almost universal controversy. The film was about a group of people who found car crashes sexually arousing, and the usual peanut gallery of Daily Fail scumbags clamoured for it to be banned. Cronenberg had to answer all kinds of ridiculous questions and, because David Cronenberg is a highly intelligent and deeply terrifying man, his answers were fascinating:
Interviewer: [‘Crash’] begins with three sex scenes in a row. Again, this seems very confrontational.
Cronenberg: Yeah, it is. There are moments when audiences burst out laughing, either in disbelief or exasperation. They can´t believe they´re going to have a look at another sex scene… And they all mean different things too. Each one leads to the other one. The first scene is of Deborah Unger with this anonymous guy in a airplane hangar. Then James Spader with an anonymous camera girl. They´re parallel of course. and then James and Deborah come together, have sex, and compare notes. That´s how they develop their sexuality. In one of my little test screenings someone said, “A series of sex scenes is not a plot.” And I said, “Why not? Who says?” And the answer is that it can be, but not when the sex scenes are the normal kind of sex scenes: lyrical little interludes and then on with the real movie. Those can usually be cut out and not change the plot or characters one iota. In Crash, very often the sex scenes are absolutely the plot and the character development. You can´t take them out. These are not twentieth-century sexual relationships or love relationships. These are something else.
Now, I love this argument, because Cronenberg’s point is a simple one which I happen to agree with. Basically, you can make a powerful, moving story out of nothing but sex scenes… just so long as those sex scenes are telling a story. If those scenes just show two people humping without any further context, then it doesn’t matter how explicit or subtle they are, they need to get dropped. You might as well be watching a picture of a bear with a helicopter flying by rocket power, because it’s going to have exactly as much relevance to the plot as the random boning.
‘Game of Thrones’ provides an excellent example of how this works. Now, GoT became notorious for including loads of what became known as ‘sexposition’: scenes where the tedious task of worldbuilding is ‘disguised’ by having by having characters relay huge amounts of background detail to the viewers whilst titties are on screen. This is because ‘people’ don’t get bored by the exposition because they’re looking at titties.
(And by ‘people’, we of course mean ‘straight, white, cis men’. Everyone else’s attention span must be long enough, or else we’d be seeing more pecs, dongs and other assorted squishy bits…)
However, not every GoT sex scene falls into this category of titillation and exploitation; some are effective storytelling tools. To my mind, the ‘best’ GoT sex scene occurs in season 1.
So the Dothraki culture has been established as a bunch of hypermasculine bellends. The men justify their constant rape of women as ‘the natural order’, behaving like the horses that are the core of their culture. It’s all pretty vile.
Poor Danaerys has been sold off to their Dudebro King, Khal Drogo, as his bride. Every night, she’s enduring a whole lot of tedious and unpleasant doggy-style rutting. Again, it’s pretty vile.
Anyway, after a chat with a Dothraki woman, Danaerys realises that she actually has more power than she thinks. She’s not got a choice to say no, but she does have a choice about how. And, after some instruction from her Dothraki friend, she manages to assert herself over Drogo. She interrupts the usual doggy-style sex, in favour of mounting him.
Trapped in a despicable culture that treats her like an object, allowing her almost no agency of her own, Danaerys manages to exert what little power she has within the confines of what is possible. And this moment is critical for the development of Danaerys’ character. We see a woman who – previously – was terrified and powerless begin to assert herself. It’s only a small step, and it’s certainly not made her life better in any meaningful way, but it’s the first time that we as an audience see that this is a woman who is not content to simply allow things to happen to her. By reversing the traditional Dothraki roles – by becoming a woman who mounts a man – there’s a powerful visual metaphor about the kind of person she is.
And also – not incidentally – about the kind of man Drogo is. Previously, we’ve only seen him as a thug and a brute; a thoughtless rapist who takes her every night. But he acquiesces to Danaerys’ instruction without any complaint, and over time, it turns out, there’s a sensitivity – a humanity – to Drogo that’s never been allowed out before. Which isn’t a surprise. Nothing keeps a douchebro douching like another douchebro. Because Dothraki culture is so absurdly violent and hypermasculine, Drogo’s never had an option to be anything but this bestial thing. Danaerys’ assertion of her own desires allows him space to explore his own.
Now, let’s be very clear here: their relationship remains vile. There’s still a power differential, Drogo is still the same violent brute, Danaerys is most likely suffering from Stockholm syndrome because the alternative is complete and total despair…
However, the discussion of all that problematic-as-hell stuff is not relevant here, because my point is this: sex scenes can be used to illustrate aspects of character. And that’s exactly what this scene accomplishes. The situation remains awful, and I’m not even going to attempt to defend ‘Game of Thrones’ because they really have made some wretched choices about the way they treat their female characters. I want to be very clea that I’m only using this scene because it’s the one mainstream readers will most likely be familiar with.
Honestly, I’d have much preferred to use ‘Crash’, but only me, my friend Dom, and about five other guys have watched that.
The thing is, I believe that unless a sex scenes is revealing something about one or all the characters involved, then it’s not really doing anything. It’s a fireworks display: pretty to look at, by meaningless and therefore forgettable.
The thing is, that action scenes operate in almost exactly the same way.
Effectively Storytelling Violence
Unless they’re a squash match, almost all wrestling matches play out in a familiar pattern of roughly seven stages:
- Stage 1 – The Intro – the introduction is simple: establish to the crowd your role in this match: this is possibly the majority of the crowd’s first time seeing you, they want to be told how to react, so tell them.
- Stage 2 – The Shine – this is the initial struggle, where the chain grappling takes place. The idea here is to do two things: let the crowd know you’re both trained and talented, and get the face over.
- Stage 3 – The Heat – this is where one guy establishes that they’re willing to do anything win: the bad guy rakes the eyes, chokes on the ropes, and argues with the ref and the crowd the whole way as they take advantage of the match.
- Stage 4 – The Comeback – the heel has the hold locked in, yells to the crowd that their hero is going to tap, and that’s when the face starts to slowly get to his feet and break the hold
- Stage 5 – The Big Heat – this is where the heel pulls out all the stops. He’s mad and embarrassed and ready to win.
- Stage 6 – The Big Comeback – the heel has missed a big move, both guys are down, the crowd should be excited for the face to have his opportunity now. This is about as long as the first comeback and even more explosive.
- Stage 7 – The Finish – The match ends.
The interesting thing is that these ‘seven stages’ that are unique to wrestling matches? Well they aren’t that unique. They’re equally applicable across almost any cinematic fight.
Don’t believe me? Well, consider…
Click here to watch the fight
- Stage 1 – The Intro: Neo and Smith face off in the underground: ‘He’s beginning to believe’
- Stage 2 – The Shine: Neo goes toe-to-toe with Smith and ends up smashing his glasses.
- Stage 3 – The Heat: Smith absolutely batters Neo, ending up with him punching Neo so back so far he’s at the exit. In the Real World, Neo coughs blood. Smith is obviously too powerful. Neo should just run.
- Stage 4 – The Comeback: he doesn’t. Neo stands, strikes a pose, and unleashes a flurry of attacks on Smith.
- Stage 5 – The Big Heat: Smith counters, slamming Neo into the wall, and, for the first time, uses his machine-powers, smashing Neo with punches faster and harder than any human possibly could. In the Real World, Neo spasms from the assault, eventually getting put through the ticket booth. Smith drags Neo down to face the oncoming train.
- Stage 6 – The Big Comeback: ‘MY NAME IS NEO.’
- Stage 7 – The Finish: Smith is dead. Until…
Too sci-fi for you? Well how about…
- Stage 1 – The Intro: the commentators explain the match. We see Creed take a few hits; he’s not Superman. Conlan smiles, unworried, and fights dirty. Right away, we know who’s who.
- Stage 2 – The Shine: Creed wins round two: ‘There’s a perfect right hand shot by Creed!’ shouts the commentators. For the first time, Conlan realises he’s not fighting a pushover.
- Stage 3 – The Heat: ‘I’m gonna smash this kid to bits.’ Creed takes a hideous beating from Conlan.
- Stage 4 – The Comeback: ‘Take everything that ever made you angry, and put it in both fists’ says Rocky. ‘Creed fires a hard body punch’ says one commentator. ‘The champ is in bad shape’ says the other. Creed is credible.
- Stage 5 – The Big Heat: Conlan lands a DEVASTATING right cross. Creed drops like a puppet with his strings cut.
- Stage 6 – The Big Comeback: Creed is down. Unconscious, he sees a vision of the adoptive mother he doesn’t want to disappoint. He sees the girlfriend he loves. He sees his adoptive father, Rocky. He sees his actual, father, the father he never saw, who never gave up. Creed explodes back to consciousness and stands.
- Stage 7 – The Finish: they fight the final round. Conlan may win the fight, but Creed has won the crowd, and everyone’s respect.
Both of these are excellent cinematic fights, and you can see how they follow that simple seven stage pattern. In fact, if you look through all the greatest cinematic fights, you’ll find that, with very few exceptions, they follow that same pattern.
Which means that the fights themselves aren’t going to reveal character, because the sequence of events in a fight is roughly the same no matter the fight. Which means that the way you reveal character through a fight isn’t about what happens, but about the way it happens.
Fighting Styles as Window Into Character.
‘You cannot know someone until you have fought them’ Seraph says to Neo in the purest ice-cream koan I‘ve ever heard.
The thing is, for audiences, that’s actually pretty true. The way a character fights reveals the most about the kind of person they are – as well as giving them depths we might otherwise never see. The most direct recent examples of this are to be found in Netflix’s rather excellent Marvel series, and this becomes really clear if you compare specifics between them.
In ‘Daredevil’, Matt Murdock is a superlative martial artist; the fight scenes are a collection of intense, spectacular affairs. Whenever Murdock runs into a collection of low-level gangsters, we see him decimate his opponents; however, against more skilled foes, he’s forced to rely on more tricksy set-ups. I’d say more, but honestly, you should just click this link for a better breakdown of the artistry of Daredevil’s fight choreography than I could ever provide.
Probably the definitive scene is the massive ‘oner’ where, in one-shot, Daredevil takes on a building full of baddies. Through sheer brutality, he comes out on top. We see him deploy every kind of strike, grapple and counter, taking body blow after body blow. By the end, he’s winded, exhausted, and nursing horrible injuries, but he’s the last one standing, and the scene really rams it home: it’s not only his skill that makes him so dangerous; it’s the fact that he just won’t quit.
Standing in stark contrast to Matt Murdock are Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Unlike Murdock, these two have actual superpowers and no training, and my Glob does it show. Jessica’s a straight brawler; in the infrequent action scenes she finds herself caught in, she relies on clumsy improvisation, brute force, and sheer stubborness. Probably her key action scene is a shootout with police who have been controlled by her archnemesis. Instead of taking them head on, she ducks and dives, surviving by a combination of guile and cleverness much more than her superstrength.
Cage, by contrast, is literally bulletproof, and if you’ve not seen the series’ incredible homage to ‘The Terminator’, it really is something else. Cage simply walks into a den of bad guys, tanks the damage, and gives everyone concussions. At no stage does he ever get above walking speed, and his signature manoeuvre – one he uses throughout the show – isn’t a punch or kick; it’s what we in the North call ‘a clip roun’t ear’: he just slaps his opponents round the top of their head. His superstrength is enough to switch their brains off, but the genius of this move is how simultaneously disrespectful and patrician this is. One of the big themes of the series is Cage taking responsibility for Harlem; that he is a man amongst boys. What attack could be more symbolic than the kind of strike that used to be used by fathers chastising errant children?
Through the way they fight, we learn about all three. Murdock is a man of skill and iron will; more than anything, his power is his determination. Jones relies on her cunning and obfuscated brilliance, always scraping through through intelligence and adaptability. Cage is a literal tank and a metaphorical father, delivering smackdowns to the irresponsible, living his life as an example to other, just like Dr. King said.
Yes, the series looks at these aspects of character in other ways too, but in each series, the fight scenes work to convey these same themes as well. In fact, I would argue that a large part of the failings in ‘Daredevil’ season 2’s latter half can be traced to the fact that The Hand ninja clan has so poorly defined a personality (as an organisation), that the fight scenes are meaningless.
Another, non-Marvel example of the absolute importance of fighting style as character trait would be in the superlative ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’, where every character’s fighting-style was deeply tied to their personality. A classic example of the kind of absurd attention to detail this series paid would be through the character of Toph.
Like Chuck Norris, only deadlier.
In the series, there are four distinct types of elemental magic, known as ‘bending’, which allow the practicioner to manipulate one element magically. Each system of bending has a specific style of martial arts linked to it, to represent the learning of magical techniques passed down over the years. Earthbending is represented by Hung Gar Kung Fu, which is a very solid style, full of powerful, physical movement. The idea the writers had was that the style conveys how Earthbending is the most physically demanding style, requiring more brute strength than any other, because you’re ‘lifting’ heavy Earth.
Having established this, they then break their rules with Toph. Toph is an Earthbender, and, the series establishes, probably the greatest of all living Earthbenders during the era the series is set. She’s also a very young girl, and quite blind.
Her blindness is how she’s learned to Earthbend – she ‘sees’ through the floor, using her magic to inform her of the relative positions, shapes and sizes of things. As a result, she’s preternaturally talented at Earthbending.
However, as a young, disabled girl, her parents see her as desperately vulnerable… so she’s never received a moment’s training in ‘true’ Earthbending. What this means is that she doesn’t use Hung Gar Kung Fu, because she doesn’t know how. Instead, she uses Southern Praying Mantis Style. Why? Because this is a style which almost never takes its feet off the floor. In the universe of ‘Avatar’ Toph fights in a literally unique, self-taught way, built around her unique powers and disability. It also informs other aspects of her character: she never wears shoes, and doesn’t feel comfortable without a layer of dirt on them. Where other people find this disgusting, to Toph, it’s her natural state; without that dirt, she can’t see, so of course she’s comfortable with it. Toph’s personality is utterly illumined by the methods through which she kicks ass and takes names.
The other excellent example from ‘Avatar’ lies with Prince Zuko and Princess Azula.
Both are villains from the Fire Nation, and each serves as a foil to the other. Zuko is passionate, headstrong, hot-blooded. He’s one of the most talented Firebenders in the world, but the same passions which give him strength also limit his potential.
This is because it’s established that in the ‘Avatar’ mythos, lightning is simply refined fire. As a result, the most powerful Firebenders can channel lightning, for significantly more devastating attacks. The trouble is, lightning is so devastating and so pure, that it cannot be channelled by an emotional mind. It needs a mind that’s focused and in control. That’s something completely beyond Zuko, whose Firebending might be devastating, but is the literal antithesis of controlled.
Azula, on the other hand, is a psychopath from the Hannibal Lecter school of calm. She’s cruel, sadistic, and always in control. Nothing ruffles her always-immaculate feathers. As a result, she never bends anything except lightning, and the series is very clear: this makes her a better fighter than almost anyone. It also serves to demonstrate all the ways in which she’s different to her brother; not just because she’s more talented, but also because she’s driven in a completely different way.
Over the course of the narrative, Zuko learns to calm himself and become a Lightning-bender… And from his uncle, a man who is demonstrably one of the calmest, most focused, most powerful firebenders in the world, he learns not just how to create lightning, but how to take it into and through himself, rechannelling its fury without letting it hurt him: a perfect metaphor for the way his character evolves from an angry, uncontrolled boy to a focused, calm and most of all, peaceful, man.
These are just a few examples of the way that deep character truths can be revealed through action scenes. So the question becomes: how does any of this matter on the tabletop?
Character Through Action In Wargaming.
Warhammer 40,000 uses a variety of stats to determine the ways a character fights: Weapon Skill shows us their raw talent; Strength shows us their lethality; Inititative shows us their speed; Attacks shows us how much they can dish out; Armour Penetration shows how likely that lethality is to be successful; Toughness and Armour Save both show their endurance.
The way these five stats are applied is used to represent the fluff, yes… But we can also use those stats to create ‘stories’. After all, every stat determines the way a model fights, and as we’ve seen, the way something fights tells us something about them.
So, we know that an Astartes is objectively better than a basic human by several degrees. In a straight fight between an Astartes and a Conscript, that marine is going home with the human’s scalp.
But compare them both to a Genestealer, and see how much each is suddenly found wanting. Genestealers are kind of the base-line for ‘scary assault’ in the fluff, and on the tabletop, their stats bear this out. They’re strong as an Astartes, but with a ludicrously high WS and I. They hit more often, and more quickly, than any human could possibly cope with. Even an Astartes struggles, especially once those Rending Claws start to negate his armour and turn him into beef strips.
Of course, fights in 40K never take place in a clear white room, and this is where the Xenotic scum’s game falls apart. After all, if the Astartes gets to cover, the Genestealer doesn’t have any way to make that alien speed count for anything, what with the lack of frag grenades, and so the Astartes only has that high WS to count with, and without that speed, it doesn’t count for as much.
And that’s just a simple troop vs. troop fight. At the opposite end of the scale, you’ve got special characters. Dante is the Daredevil of 40K, jumping in with high initiative, high attacks and deadly AP too, able to razor enemies into chum through speed and ferocity. On the opposite end, you’ve got Marneus Calgar, who fights like Luke Cage, tanking the damage before tapping his enemies on the head with a Power Fist blow of spectacular destructive capacity.
Then, beyond them, you’ve got the Primarchs, all able to devastate any lesser model with almost insulting ease, but against one another…
Consider Rogal Dorn; he fights with bolt pistol and chainsword, the very paragon of the classic Astartes fighting style… And gets completely beasted by Angron, who’s shown up with a pair of absurdly deadly chain-axes and more Attacks than literally any other single model in the game. Of course, Angron’s not wearing more than barbarian plate, so Dorn can rely on his men to shoot the World Eaters’ Primarch before Angron can get to him… or so he hopes.
And suddenly the stats are telling you a story.
Characters, like people, are defined not by who they are, but by what they do. And in wargaming, models get to do things, meaning that those mathematical rules? They tell a story. They’re intrinsically bound to a narrative the moment they pop into existence. As a result, any storyteller or games designer should carefully consider what their ‘characters’’ actions reveal about them. The moment you allow this kind of interaction, you’re telling a story whether you want to or not.
So put some care into it, because a fireworks display is nice and all, but the truly compelling stuff is always going to be more than something that’s just fun on the surface.