Ever watch a movie where you’re actively rooting for the bad guys to win ten minutes into the film? If you’re into that kind of thing, look no further than Netflix’s new apocalyptic thriller ‘How It Ends,’ released a couple of days ago. Although ambitious and well-shot, ‘How It Ends’ suffers from a fatal disease that I like to call ‘Stupid Protagonist Problems.’ Since we’re in the business of storycraft and storytelling, it makes sense for us to talk about stupid protagonist problems, and how we can avoid them in our own work.
I’m always disappointed when Netflix releases a clunker. I love Netflix. I love sci-fi. Whenever they’re producing indie sci-fi like Tau, Spectre, or Altered Carbon, I’m invested in their success. I want them to work, because their success is subtle black eye for mainstream studios that refuse to take a chance on original stories.
You can imagine, then, how disappointed I was to see ‘How It Ends,’ featuring one of my favorite actors (Theo James from Divergent) stumble so badly. It’s not hard to spot the problems. James’ character makes a number of cringeworthy choices in the first twenty-five minutes that leave you going: “This guy passed the bar exam?” He awshucks his way through disasterous encounters featuring parking-lot hookers, fake cops, and … American Indians? God this guy is dumb. After thirty minutes, the only question I had was: Why hasn’t Forest Whitaker killed this guy already?
The point is that How It Ends suffers from stupid protagonist problems (SPP), which happen when writers don’t ask themselves a very simple, basic question: Would my character really do that? What do we know about our character? Is he smart? Naive? Educated? Ignorant? What kind of choices would they make under these circumstances? Would they be smart choices, or dumb ones?
In ‘How It Ends,’ the protag is a young, successful attorney. Would he be dumb enough to walk straight up to a prostitute, with his disapproving future father-in-law hovering nearby while the world is ending? Probably not. Would he be too dumb to know how to load a gun, but smart enough to follow Forest Whitaker’s instructions during a car chase? The entire movie is rife with the kind of structure problems you learn to avoid in seventh-grade creative writing.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes chracters are going to be dumb (Looking at you, Lennie from Of Mice and Men), sometimes they’re going to make bad choices (any protag in a Shane Black movie), and sometimes they are going to make mistakes (Anakin Skywalker not taking the high ground). That’s basic storytelling. But when characters consistenly make lame choices that leave you scratching your head, that’s just bad storytelling.
Stupid protagonist problems are something you fix after your first writing session. The fact that they survived all through production, post-production, editing, release … that’s just sad. Netflix needs to spend less getting A-list stars and more on copies of ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk, because as ‘How It Ends’ proves, no movie star looks good when the writing is bad.