When is a Bad Plot Excusable?

This is a spoiler-free discussion, although some general plot points might be touched on.  Can’t say the same of whatever comments are below.  You’ve been warned.

So, I finally finished series four of Sherlock Holmes last night.  As I was sitting in the afterglow, warm and fuzzy, unwilling to watch anything else lest the spell break, I was struck with a realization.  The plot of The Final Problem… did not hold up.

The more I thought about it the more I was able to unravel details that bothered me.  I’m a nitpicker by nature, so this wasn’t a new feeling, but I wondered why I didn’t notice the problems while I was watching it.  Furthermore, why was I trying so desperately to excuse its faults?

I’ve felt like this at least once before, directly after a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.  I remember that same feeling of “Wow.  Such a good way to wrap up the trilogy,” while sitting in the theater, and then listening to my friends bitch the whole way home about all the stupid details and why they didn’t enjoy it.

I’ve also been that person, most notably during and directly after Avatar, which I hate with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.  (Ok, maybe not that much, but it’s pretty bad.)  I hate the premise.  I hate every detail.  I will concede that the visuals were all right (even downright impressive, assuming you had never seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit and/or any of the Pixar cannon.)  But in general I can’t forgive that movie.

So what gives?  Why am I so harsh on Avatar when The Dark Knight Rises has third act that basically revolves around this plot point:

RIP Adam West. You were underrated.
Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

Well, it basically boils down to three things:

  1. Context
  2. Audience Goodwill
  3. Emotional Resonance


It is entirely possible to hide a bad movie plot through fast pacing and clever editing.  For example, Memento has one of those plots that wouldn’t make very much sense (or be particularly interesting) if the story was played in chronological order.  Cutting it up keeps the audience on the edge of their seat and obscures some of the more head-scratching details.

Genre also matters.  You can maintain an audience’s suspension of disbelief based on what their expectations are.  Star Wars can play fast and loose with physics because it’s essential a space adventure series but everyone lost their minds when the crew in Prometheus removed their helmets on the planet.  (I know, I was one of them.)  The Alien franchise is a survival-horror series so we’re much more critical of any “stupid” action our heroes take.  Also, it tends to have a stricter adherence to the “science” part of science-fiction and generally takes itself more seriously.

We miss you too, Bill.
Er… most of the time.

When it comes to Avatar, the visuals were the big draw.  The people who loved it usually didn’t care about the plot.  They wanted the immersive experience of a 3D film and a rich fantasy world.  Personally, if I’m going to be blown away by visuals I’d like a simple, compact story with little room for convoluted plot contrivances.  (See: Mad Max: Fury Road.)

Context is entirely subjective.  What some may forgive others have a hard time getting behind.  Likewise, what some consider groundbreaking innovation others may see as a cheap gimmick.  So let’s move on to…

Audience Goodwill

Both The Dark Knight Rises and The Final Problem are the last installments of a franchise. In respect to context, we want them to be good because we want to say that it goes out on a good note.  At this point in both respective series they’ve build up enough audience goodwill to withstand some criticism.

And sometimes a movie is just so bad it can’t be saved.  (Looking at you, Spiderman 3.)  Context matters in this case, too.  The first two Spiderman movies were fairly successful and received decent reviews.  But what changed between 2 and 3?  Batman Begins came out and suddenly the cultural landscape of comic book movies changed.  Audiences loved the dark and gritty realism of Nolan’s take on the character and suddenly they were less forgiving of the Raimi series and its camp.  The pendulum swung back the other way in the middle of the Amazing Spiderman series, with #2 losing out to Guardians of the Galaxy, which reminded everyone that camp can be fun.

dance off
So this gets collective pass, but we can’t forgive Tobey Maguire?

This doesn’t just apply to serialized properties.  Both Wonder Woman and Captain America: The First Avenger had weak third acts but their movies held up without having to rely on previous installments.   The first two-thirds of the film buoyed them when their endings started to tank.  The reason they had so much goodwill comes down to the time spent on character development.  And that leads us to…

Emotional Resonance

When you have good characters the audience wants them to succeed.

I care about Nolan’s Batman.  I care about Sherlock and Watson.  I care about Wonder Woman and Captain America.  So when they come out on top, I’m happy about that, even if the way they got there might’ve been a touch stupid.

I’m going to backtrack and talk about Spiderman 3 again as a comparison.  I think one of the reasons that movie lost so much goodwill is because the character of Peter Parker is such a tool.  (At least in that film.)  In the first two we empathize with his struggles, his internal conflicts and related to him as a flawed hero.  By the end of the third movie we don’t care if he succeeds because he’s become so unlikable as a protagonist.

gwen stacey
In Pratt’s defense he never had to make up for a scene like this.

Contrary to that, when Batman finally passes the torch at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, I felt a swell of emotion.  During the montage of Sherlock and John solving cases together at the end of in The Final Problem I felt satisfied with how they wrapped everything up.  For once the details were just details, and I was able to let it go because of the way it resonated with me emotionally.

It’s a lot easier to forgive something that makes you happy, even if that happiness is entirely subjective.

Additional thoughts

When I originally wrote this, I put a disclaimer saying that this discussion doesn’t apply to intentionally self-aware camp, so-bad-it’s-good schlock, or guilty pleasure movies.  I want to retract that statement.

When it comes to bad movies we love, it still applies.  Either the context is there (Adam West’s Batman knows exactly what it is) or the audience goodwill is (The Room might be the worst film ever made but I’m enjoying myself so I forgive it) or the emotional resonance is (I won’t try to convince anyone else to watch Last Man on Earth but I also can’t look away.  When it’s good it’s really good.)

So what about you, gentle reader?  What gets a pass in your book?  What can never be forgiven?  Let me know in the comments and feel free to tell me how my interpretations of your beloved films are horribly, horribly wrong, while my favorites totally suck.

See you there. 😉