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Die Hard and the Rule of Escalating Threat…

Bruce Willis has started talking about Die Hard 5 (maybe that should be Die Hard 5.0, but I digress), and has suggested that the next logical step for John McClane is to save the world. Think about it. In Die Hard, he saved a building full of people – not bad, you might say. In Die Harder, he saved an entire airport and the planes in the sky – impressive, you might agree. In Die Hard With A Vengeance, he saved New York from a mad bomber – maybe a little outside of his pay grade, you’ll possible argue. In Die Hard 4.0 (or Live Free and Die Hard), McClane pretty much single-handedly (because nerdy sidekicks don’t count) saved the United States of America. The remark that McClane is porbably going to save the world – while probably a bit of a joke on Willis’ part – got me thinking: is the rule of escalating threat necessarily a good thing?

More sequels, less hair...

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the suggestion is that in each iteration of any given media, the sheer scale of the threat facing our hero must increase. It happens in movie franchises and television shows. Take the revived Doctor Who as an example. The first year he saved Earth in the future; the next year he saved Earth in the present; the following year he saved the entire universe from a despot; the year after that he stopped the destruction of all the possible universes (“the end… of reality… ITSELF!”). 24 followed a similar pattern in its first few years (assassination – nuke – biological weapons). Things just ramp up.

One can understand the reasons for upping the threat level in long-running franchises. We’ve seen John McClane handle a bunch of terrorists in a building, so why would we want to see that again? Even if you give the character something on par this that, the tension is arguable gone: we know he can handle a given building full of terrorists now. By the end of the fourth film, we know he can save the country. To go back would undermine the audience’s faith in the character. Dealing with a hostage crisis seems… beneath him now. He can do that in his sleep.

There are other factors. Keep in mind the budget creep. Original films are hard to come by these days, but they are typically seen as risky investments and so get carefully allocated budgets. The studios want to put the money where they know they will get a return. You make an action movie on a shoestring and it does well enough to earn a sequel, you’ll find yourself with a bit of money to throw around. You might spend some of it overhauling the cast and drafting in some Oscar-nominees to lend gravitas, but you’ll have some left over. And that has to show up on screen. Undoubtedly you could do what you did before, only better (make a more expensive hostages-in-building thriller!) – but that would make the original look cheaper than it actually was. So you put the money into setpieces and CGI, which just up the ante for the hero even more.

There’s also The First Law of Metafictional Thermodynamics to take into account. TVTropes summarises the law as follows:

For any fictional system, the sum of the mass in the system and the energy in the system is a constant.

In other words, the total energy in a fictional system is constant, regardless of how many components there are. That energy must then be divided amongst those components. Logically, if there are more components, the less energy can be devoted to any individual component. Equally obviously, there are more conmplex components in original films. Think about Die Hard. when it starts, we don’t know John McClane. He’s an unknown. The film must devote energy to crafting his character, giving him quirks and traits. That’s a lot of energy, so the energy devoted to the threat and the set pieces is obviously somewhat diminished. By the time the second movie comes around, we know John McClane and we know Holly Genero. No need to waste too much time or energy of characterisation – so that means more for the action. Woot! By the third film, we’ve dumped Holly and John McClane is a pop culture icon, so even more energy can be spent developing the threat.

Note that ‘energy’ doesn’t translate as ‘quality’. It simply means attention given to that aspect or the extent to which the given item drives the movie. I’d argue – and I think few would disagree – that Hans Gruber is a truly brilliant villain and the best from the movies so far. And, truth be told, I enjoyed Die Hard more than its sequels because I felt that John McClane received an impressive amount of characterisation, especially when he’s reduced to a quip-quoting bad-ass (“You killed a helicopter with a car!” “I was outta bullets”) in the following films.

Being honest, the downside of the rule of excalating threat is that it tends to become quite numbing for audiences after a time. Truth be told, we know John McClane will win and kill the bad guys. But it’s very hard to get a sense of scale of ‘the end of the world as we know it’, particularly when a New York Cop is all that stands against it. It feels strange to see a guy who we’ve seen in the intimate surroundings of the Nakatomi ventillation ducts killing helicopters with cars. It’s a lot less intimate. By escalating the scale, the film makers disengage the audience. Gruber is more menacing threatening eighty people than that bad guy from Die Hard 4.0 is threatening two hundred million.

But what can be done? How can a sequel avoid ridiculous escalation without being accused of simply offering “more of the same”? We’ve been joking about the ridiculousness of the Die Hard sequels, but wouldn’t we be doing the same if they were a variation upon the “terrorists take hostages in a [building type]” theme? We’d be placing bets about which institution McClane would be liberating next – my money would be on nursing homes. Put a little make-up on Brucie and he could be Badass Grampa McClane (like Badass Grampa Jack Bauer). He could even steal lines from the Lethal Weapon franchise. He really is getting too old for this…

Maybe the solution is variety rather than escalation. Saving the country is different from guerilla warfare, but why notspice things up on a similar scale. What if Die Hard 2 had given us a day on the beat with McClane – maybe even dealing with a hostage situation from the outside rather than the inside? The James Bond movies (before the reboot, which is a common device in movie franchises to resist the threat escalation index) featured something similar – a rogue MI5 agent stealing from the Bank of England one movie and a media mogul promoting war in Asia in the next. Or you could always just make the stakes more personal for the hero (escalating the personal threat, so to speak), which does keep things relatively intimate and might avoid losing the audience in the scale of things.

I don’t know. I just feel a little disconnected from John McClane, which is odd because he really started out as the cinematic everyman. Sure, he saved a bunch of hostages from some terrorists, but it actually didn’t seem that unbelievable (and, yes, that’s a relative term). I’m waiting for Die Hard 6.0, where John McClane saves the solar system.

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