Who knew, saving the world isn’t as important as it seems!
What I mean by that is, the more grandiose or extravagant stakes seem to be in a story, less important they really are. A little counterintuitive, you might be thinking. It is. But for science, let’s indulge in the idea a bit and look at the most monumental stakes there are, the stakes of “saving the world” or the universe, for you sci-fi nerds out there. How important do you think it is to save the world? Or can we just let it die already? Now if you have a conscience, you might be thinking it is very important to save the world. Hold onto that thought.
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Before we fall down a cryptic wormhole of confusing ideas, let’s talk about stakes. In particular, how they really work. Otherwise, it would be quite pointless to ask whether they are doing a good job, if we’re not aware what that job is.
Very simply, stakes give our characters that urgency to do the things they want to do or must do. They make it so our characters have to make decisions and then act on them. But stakes don’t appear out of thin air. They are born out of necessity. A world is only at stake for someone who is trying to save it, for everyone else, it’s just a dying world. Which means, in order for stakes to have any merit, our characters must first want or need something. And stakes are the consequence of failing to obtain or do those things. These things that our characters want are called motives. And this magical combination of motives and stakes makes this whole system turn.
Let’s consider the movie Mean Girls; Lindsay Lohan’s character, Cady, is new in school and her motive is to find new friends. And the stakes are if she doesn’t she would be living a very dull and lonely high school life. In order for that to not be the case, she needs to put herself out there. And this “need” made the entire movie happen.
So, stakes and motives are important. Because, if you consider the alternative, having no stakes means there are no consequence for our characters’ action. If failing to stop Voldemort had no consequences then you wouldn’t care to watch Harry struggle with it for 7 books. It would be just Harry going about making the life of a man without a nose worse than it already is. (Man that boy is insensitive.) A character that just gets bounced around by the plot isn’t fun to watch but you also don’t want him to aimlessly wander and do random things for no reason. Because that’s not a story, that’s real life. (Ew, get me out of here) In fiction, we like ’em up and kickin’ major ass, know what I mean? So, incorporating the right stakes and motives makes things tick, and then you get a story.
And in the said story, we often like to burn the world to the ground. (WHISPER: I guess we’re not there yet)“Saving the world” or saving a city, or saving a system, basically anything that is expansive and translates to a colossal loss of life is a type of stake that is used quite commonly in storytelling and in every Marvel and DC movie and comic EVER. But that’s for a very obvious reason, right? At face value, it literally raises the stakes. It amps up the tension, gives a time constraint to our characters and makes things move along faster. It creates that urgency. So, it might se. em like it does its job as a stake just fine. Only, that needs a little more probing.
Before we do that though, let’s look at personal stakes. Saving the world can be considered a story stake. Things that pertain to the story and no individual character. Like defusing a bomb or overthrowing a government. Unless you think it’s your personal job to overthrow the government, you freakin millennial. You think you’re so entitled. Anyway, personal stakes are personal. Yep. It’s pretty straightforward what that means. It’s when something personal, like a loved one, or a character’s reputation or own life is at stake.
In Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, (we don’t associate with the 2003 FMA here like all the cool people) The city of Amestris is in danger, but that’s an overarching story stake. Whereas Edward and Alphonse are trying to get their bodies back, which is a strictly personal stake for them.
Why we need to look at personal stakes is because they often go unnoticed. They are the magical genies of storytelling, upholding everything up with all their might but get no recognition at all and get swept under the glory of superficial stakes like saving the world.
The second Batman movie is my favourite from the trilogy and that is the case for many people. And it perfectly explains and reinforces our idea of personal stakes being more important than the overarching stake of saving the dying world, in terms of making a story more enjoyable. In both of the other movies in the trilogy, Batman is made to act in favor of Gotham, meaning there is a potent threat to the city and Batman being our dark and brooding vigilante he is, feels responsible to save it. But in the second movie, Joker targets everything that is personal to Bruce himself and it made Batman’s vigor that much more appealing. Joker kidnaps Rachel and tarnishes Batman’s reputation as the symbol of hope for Gotham, both of which we can say Bruce cares deeply about. Batman’s need to save Gotham comes from a personal experience no doubt, but from something that happened in his past. Something he has no control over. It is a distant memory, fueling a motive that Batman himself doesn’t quite comprehend so we can say that it’s not a very organic feeling for Batman wanting to save Gotham. But he genuinely loves Rachel and admires Gordon, so when they are in danger, his response is a lot less clinical and distant and hence more heartfelt. It makes us root for him for a change instead of being in a constant awe of him.
When a character has more personal conflict it makes them seem human. If he has flaws, it is engaging to watch him overcome it, if the threat is too massive for him, it is interesting to watch him become better and to watch a character that has been kicked in the dirt climb back up on his feet is a freakin pot of gold in terms of enjoyment. But when someone is on a pedestal like Batman, there is only awe. And acknowledgement of his badassery. How is that a bad thing, you ask? The reason is simple, it loses its charm pretty quickly because there is nowhere to go from that, Batman movie one. Except, falling from grace and climbing back up, Batman movie 2. And this endeavour, this struggle, this strife to become z better is a lot more enjoyable. That’s literally a comparison between One Punch Man and Naruto. The only time Saitama can hold your attention all on his own is when he is looking for a worthy opponent but Naruto has been doing it his whole life (and your whole life).
This tells us that personal stakes are more essential because they require a rather unique response from characters as opposed to “let’s save it” when it comes to protecting the whole universe. There’s an added layer of understanding when you see a character struggling with personal conflict. It makes the story more immersive.
You won’t remember what Roy Mustang did to stop what seemed to be the Amestris extermination but you remember damn well what he did to save Riza Hawkeye or to avenge Hughes.
Now you might be thinking, for something that is essentially a facade, “saving the world” sure does pop up a lot. And the reason why it has been beaten to death but is still around can be attributed to stakes themselves. See stakes are essential, they are an absolute must, so much so that even involving something as cliche as saving your girlfriend as in Deadpool can result in an entertaining story. Because you can lift the whole thing up by making your characters interesting instead. On the other hand if a lame character, you can’t seem to tolerate saves the world in the most awe inspiring ways, it doesn’t give you the same kick. (Cough Captain America cough). Deadpool dealing with cancer made just as interesting a story as Guardians of the Galaxy and X-men trying to save the world. Which also tells us something important, numbers don’t mean anything but of course they do. Look how much more money Deadpool made than the Guardians of the Galaxy and X-men. Anyway, that’s just between personal stakes and the stakes of saving the world. One might be better than the other but as a rule of thumb, it’s better to have either than having none at all. Hence the obsession with the dying world that needs saving. So, technically, you don’t care about the world AND you subconsciously find it entertaining that it’s on fire. We’ll talk about it later how you’re a horrible human being.
What we are looking at with the Deadpool and X-men or Guardians of the Galaxy comparison is that this predisposition to liking the stories about saving the world comes not from saving the world in itself but from our attachment to the characters who are doing the saving. So you can say, as is true for many things, the charm of saving the world comes from merely its idea. More often than not, it works as a background distraction or an added feature as opposed to this massive thing it seems to be. It creates this tension which keeps you on the edge of your seat but it does not accomplish that alone. Not even close. Without characters who you’ve seen have personal conflict, you wouldn’t really care about the world at all. Personal stakes are key in making the stake of saving the world seem appealing, it cannot do it on its own.
Now let’s come back to how you’re a horrible human being for finding a dying world entertaining, you sicko. If you were trying to tell yourself that that’s not true the whole time, riddle me this. Would you be okay if some random kid with white hair walks in like a boss and catches Kira red handed, locks him behind bars, and goes home munching chocolate? Instead of our beloved L. Would you be okay with that? Wait a second o.o. I didn’t think so. But why not? Do you not care about those people just dropping dead because of a lunatic? Do you not care about the world?
And as shocking as it may be, we really don’t. We don’t care about saving the world as long as our hero really wants to. We care about L catching Kira, it’s just a minor bump in the road that Light is killing everyone right, left, and center. (Cough: I like puppies. Psyche)But seriously though, we just care about our characters. We’d rather have a dead world than have someone other than our man, the MC, save it. (why death note totally went down hill from the point that L died). Who is Neo? Near? Milo? Give us L, damn it or let everyone die. Screw the world, who cares?
If you really think about it, “saving the world” is like the Queen of England of storytelling. It’s not particularly important but it’s darn fancy to have one. Also nobody cares if either of them are dead.
So, next time you get hyped up for Captain America 50, know that you secretly like Chris Evans and then cry in a corner. Because it’s not that we love watching our heroes SAVE THE WORLD. We love watching OUR HEROES save the world.