Essays, Not Rants! 379: Delicious Stakes
There’s a common maxim in storytelling stating something to the effect of how you should always raise the stakes. Don’t make it just a friend at risk, make it a sibling. Instead of it just being the neighborhood affected, have it be the town. If you’re gonna have to save a city, it oughta be a major metropolis like New York. And why stop at saving the city when you can save the world?
High stakes usually mean high thrills. The Battle of New York at the climax of The Avengers is epic because they aren’t just fighting for the city but the entire world too. Lara Jean’s predicament in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is so dire because it’s her entire high school reputation at stake. Inigo Montoya wants vengeance because the Six-Fingered Man killed his father, not a mentor or neighbor.
And yet, sometimes there’s something so much fun about a story where the stakes are low. Too much life-or-death can be tiring; there’s a point where having every conflict with the Avengers being about saving the world where it starts to seem very same-old-same-old.
That might just be why Ant-Man and The Wasp is a movie that’s so delightful: the stakes are just so low. There’s no risk of some powerful tech/weapon falling into the wrong hands (Iron Man, Ant-Man, Guardians of The Galaxy) or some vengeful figure from the character’s past threatening the hero’s life (Iron Man 2, Thor Ragnarok, Captain Marvel). It’s not even the question of a Very Important Friendship that Civil War presents, one with ramifications for near everyone.
The stakes at the heart of Ant-Man and The Wasp is the question of if Hank and Hope can rescue a Janet from the Quantum Realm. Complicating it is a Scott who wants to help but doesn’t want to violate his house arrest. There are also some villainous black market dealers and a woman named Ava who’s adversely affected Pym Particles. And that’s really about it, there’s no true villain; not in the way that Civil War presents flawed characters warring amongst themselves, but in a way that’s pretty, well, chill. By the end of it, everyone is more or less happy to get along with one another.
Sure, the day’s been saved, but that just means that Janet’s been rescued from the Quantum Realm and they’re working on a way to stabilize Ava.
In a Marvel universe where the fate of the world is quite frequently at stake, it’s downright refreshing to have a movie where that’s really about it. No cataclysm, no Hydra takeover, just well, a small little side-adventure. It’s refreshing, especially sandwiched as it is between Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel (and then Endgame). Similarly, although Spider-Man: Far From Home does have some pretty high stakes, it feels kinda low compared to the existential threat that was Thanos. Sure, you’ve got these potentially world-destroying Elementals, but far more important is Peter’s relationship with MJ and his friends. These dumb villains are getting in the way of his vacation, man!
Honestly, it does feel like his friendships are the more important stake, and that’s okay. When it comes down to it, stakes only matter if we care about it and one way to make us care about it is to see a character care. When Peter frets about sitting next to MJ on a plane ride, we care about it too because we’ve invested in Peter Parker. Lloyd Dobbler and Diane Court’s relationship in Say Anything… isn’t gonna change the world, but it’ll change theirs. Daniel winning the tournament isn’t a life-or-death thing in The Karate Kid, but it’s the fruition of his relationship with Mr. Miyagi, and so much of the movie’s stakes are within the question of whether or not Daniel will be able to find a sense of belonging in the new town and, in turn, self-actualize.
Perhaps the maxim is a little misguided. Bigger stakes are really only bigger if they mean something. The Earth is destroyed at the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy but that’s not really so much as important as poor Arthur Dent yearning for a proper cup of tea. The Earth is generic, but that cup of tea means everything. So really, the size of the stake doesn’t matter so much as it’s well treated and given the proper time it needs to stew. Then bam, your stake is delicious.