February 11, 2015
Five Good Things about Masters of the Universe: Number 4, He-Man gets captured.
It's so cliche even Austin Powers made fun of it. Roger Ebert gave it a name: The Fallacy of the Talking Killer. Not only does it appear on the Evil Overlord list, but it appears several times.
The villain has the hero dead to rights. All he has to do is pull the trigger. "Bang. Dead." to quote Scott Evil. But he doesn't. He has to kill the hero in some elaborate way. Or he has to kill him after he has destroyed all that he holds dear. Or he has to explain his plan first. Or he has to kill him after he attains ultimate power in the universe.
Which is to say, he has to let the hero put his escape plan into action so we can have a crowd-pleasing end-of-the-movie fight scene.
The wrong way to do this is how it's down in every James Bond movie ever: a naked plot contrivance. The villain can't kill the hero because then the hero would be dead and the movie would be over. The right way is to give the villain a reason to keep the hero alive.
Now if you're a hack fraud, you'll say, "But Carl Eusebius, you just gave reasons! The villain can't kill the hero because of his hubris. He has to triumph in such a way that blah blah" shut the fuck up. "The villain is arrogant" is not a reason, it's a plot contrivance. A reason comes from a character. It's called "motivation". Every character in your story has to have it, else your story isn't about human beings or anything like them. If a villain is so arrogant that he'll risk his own life due to his arrogance, you have to set that up. It has to emerge from the villain's character. Let me give you two examples from movies that don't suck. One movie is great, and the other is good in a schlocky action kind of way, just to show you that "action" doesn't mean "dumb".
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the titular villain doesn't personally have Kirk in his sights, but he has a man who does, Captain Terrell. Terrell informs Khan that he has Kirk at phaserpoint and also has possession of the Genesis device, so that Khan is free to take the device at any time. Khan, being a villain in an actual movie, immediately orders Terrell to execute Kirk, since, as he puts it, "First thing's first." Terrell is too good a person to gun someone down in cold blood, even under mind control, so he fails to do so. Kirk then taunts Khan, demanding that he face him personally. Khan, being a villain in an actual movie (did I mention that part?), correctly suspects that he has nothing to gain by doing this. At this moment he is in control; going to Kirk's location means fighting on Kirk's terms, not his own. Instead, he can destroy Enterprise and leave Kirk permanently stranded. This victory would be poetic (and we know Khan is a cultured man who would appreciate the poetry of his vengeance, since he quotes Milton and Melville at the drop of a hat), because Kirk has earlier abandoned Khan and his wife. What better way to revenge himself upon Kirk than to consign him to the same fate?
At the end of the film, Kirk is back on Enterprise, which in its current state is much weaker than Khan's Reliant. To make up for this, Enterprise flees into a nebula, where both ships will be crippled to the same degree. Khan rather wisely again refuses to fight on Kirk's terms. But Kirk knows Khan, the kind of man he is. Because The Wrath of Khan is a great film, it now inverts the earlier situation that led to Enterprise being crippled in the first place. In that situation, Khan approached Enterprise as a friend, since Reliant is a fellow Starfleet ship, while refusing to make contact to avoid giving the game away. One of Kirk's officers quoted a regulation requiring defensive action against any ship, even a Starfleet ship, that has not been successfully contacted. Because Khan knows Kirk well, he correctly guesses that Kirk will ignore this regulation and instead rely on his own judgment. This allows Khan to cripple Kirk's ship by firing without warning on a defenseless Enterprise.
But now, at the end, it's Kirk's knowledge of Khan that will in turn lead to Khan's crushing defeat. Kirk gets on the line and taunts Khan, this time not angrily, but mockingly. "I'm laughing at the 'superior intellect'", he says with barely concealed mirth, purposefully using Khan's own language to goad him. Khan then makes the fatal decision to enter the nebula, where he finds only defeat and death.
The second film I've already talked about, but fuck it, here it is again. In Commando, the villain Bennett has Matrix at gunpoint, as he holds the latter's daughter hostage. Matrix plays on his knowledge of Bennett's psych (they were in special forces together for many years) to get Bennett to discard both the gun and the girl and fight Matrix as an equal. In a shitty action movie, this would work because villains are dumb. But here it works because Commando carefully lays the groundwork for it to work. Bennett is shown to take pleasure in killing with knives rather than guns, so he can see his victims' eyes as the life oozes out of them. Bennett is repeatedly shown comparing himself to Matrix, claiming they are equals and superior to the common soldiers around them. Even if no one else were around to see it, if Bennett defeated Matrix only because he had his daughter as hostage and the gun, he would always have that doubt: Was I really better than him? Because Bennett has been measuring himself against Matrix for a long time, only by beating him "fairly" can he be sure, in his own mind, that he's really the best. Even then, Bennett's no fool. Once he realizes Matrix is winning and he manages to locate the discarded gun, he doesn't hesitate to use it. Wanting to be the best is one thing, but he's not dying for it.
So it is for Masters of the Universe. As the film opens, Skeletor has won. He's captured Castle Grayskull and the Sorceress. All he needs to do is to drain her power and wait for the stars to align and he gains ultimate power in the universe or whatever. The forces of good have been reduced to a ragtag resistance force, with He-Man as its charismatic leader. When Skeletor sends his forces out to capture He-Man, his right-hand woman Evil-Lyn inquires why he doesn't order them to kill him. Skeletor replies, "If I kill him, I make him a martyr, a saint." Instead, he plans to capture He-Man, utterly break him, and parade this shattered and dejected enemy leader in front of the world, to demoralize all his followers and discourage anyone else from being one. See, that's a reason not to kill the hero, at least not right away.