(A Subjective Take on Movie and Television Tropes)
Movies and television couldn’t exist without tropes. Genre fiction in particular is reliant upon themes and ideas that we’ve seen a hundred times (let’s face it, at base level, there are only so many three-act stories to be told). It’s what each individual project does with these recurring motifs that make them feel either new and thrilling (Hereditary) or tired to the point of cliché (The Conjuring: Any of Them).
Certain tropes have become such an ingrained part of filmed fiction that we just go with it to keep the story moving, and, sometimes even enjoy them on their own merits. What follows is a (subjective, as always) list of movie and TV tropes, some that I hate, some that I can deal with, and a few that I even like, rated on a scale of 1-10, being least to most annoying. Note that I am primarily discussing genre films here, and there are certainly exceptions to all of these (some of which we’ll discuss).
1. SHITTY SHARPSHOOTERS (Annoyance Level: 10)
My most hated cliché in film and television: Our hero is outgunned ten to one. He has to run across an open parking lot to get to safety while being sprayed with hundreds of rounds of automatic gunfire by highly-trained snipers. And every single bullet misses. This particular cliché is borne (no pun intended) of the kind of one-upmanship that forces filmmakers to elevate a simple gunfight (that has real tension and sense of danger) to a cartoonish spray of so many bullets that, in real life, would undoubtedly make Swiss cheese out of the fleeing protagonist.
SEE: John Wick, The Punisher (all iterations), Captain America: The Winter Soldier, most James Bond films.
2. EXPLODING EVERYTHING (Annoyance Level: 6)
Sometimes in movies, things blow up. People like to see things blow up. BOOM! Did you see the thing blow up? Wasn’t it cool? Explosions are fine when the item making the big boom is something incendiary enough to create such a massive fireball (usually being things with gas tanks). But in too many movies, items that would never create an explosion bigger than your average bootleg firework erupt like a silo full of TNT.
3. SINGING WOOD (Annoyance Level: 2)
It is a cliché etched in Hatori Hanso steel: No metallic weapon—knife, sword, scimitar, sling blade, screwdriver—can be extricated from any housing without it making a sharp, ringing sound… even if the sheath is a leather scabbard or wooden knife block. Simple physics can be distracting when ignored (other annoying impossible sounds: screeching tires on dirt roads or grass, soft-heeled shoes making clopping noise, that goddamn red-tailed hawk speaking for every predatory bird on Earth).
SEE: Gladiator, Kill Bill (both volumes), Xena: Warrior Princess, Conan the Barbarian
4. GENERIC DRINK ORDERS / UNCLOSED TABS (Annoyance Level: 5)
While blatant product placement can be a distraction, it’s nowhere near as annoying as when a character bellies up to a full bar and orders, “A beer.” As someone who’s slung suds for a living, I can tell you that’s the beginning of the order, not the end (unless the bar is in England or some other godforsaken land where the pub only has one thing on tap)!
Equally as distracting is the frequency with which characters will abruptly leave a bar or restaurant without (a) finishing their drink or (b) paying their tab, often just tossing a few bills on the bar, presumably hoping that it’ll cover it. But what if it doesn’t? And what about the tip? What about the tip?!?
SEE: Blue Bloods, Cocktail (ugh), Cheers (don’t get me started on Cheers)
5. KILLING WITH IMPUNITY (Annoyance Level: 8)
I get it, sometimes a friend or family member gets killed or kidnaped and the cops just won’t do what needs to be done and so you gotta take the law into your own hands. Hey, we’ve all been there. But when revenge becomes a killing spree that leaves a string of dead bodies across numerous time zones and international borders, why does it seem like almost every vigilante just goes back to life as normal (at least until the sequel when another family member is killed or kidnaped again)?
SEE: Taken, Taken 2: The Tookening, Taken 3: Tooked Again, pretty much anything with Liam Neeson
6. PROBABLY TOO BEAUTIFUL HOMES (Annoyance Level: 1)
Okay, sure, that spacious downtown loft with the exposed brick and beams and the floor-to-ceiling windows and the hardwood floors and the chef’s kitchen and the amazing lighting and all the plants that aren’t dead would be beyond the financial reach of that waitress that accidentally saw that mob hit. Most of the time, I don’t care. Show me the houses beautiful! I’ll never be able to afford one, let me live vicariously! I’ve stuck with terrible movies just because I wanted to see more of the fabulous living spaces.
SEE: Ghost, Bosch (Harry got that movie money), Rear Window (but I will not say FRIENDS. Fuck them).
7. RESILIENCE (TO AN EXTENT) (Annoyance Level: 4)
One of the many things that makes Die Hard the best action film of all time (but it’s not a Chr… oh, forget it) is that John McClane gets hurt. We feel his pain as he struggles to defeat Hans Gruber’s merry band of bandits with bloody feet and bruised bones. Sure, with each successive sequel, despite getting older, Bruce Willis’ grizzled detective seems to develop nigh-invulnerability, ultimately shaking off having a building collapse on him in A Good Day to Die Hard like a bald Wile E. Coyote. But anyone who’s ever been in a real brawl knows that, again, if movies were like real life, all physical confrontations between regular humans would be over as quickly as they began. Being punched / stabbed / shot / et al hurts! So it doesn’t bother me too much when Bruce Lee gets back up after being kicked around by a hundred martial arts assassins. Nor should it you.
SEE ALSO: They Live, The Killer, Oldboy, and all of the Fast & Furious franchise (it’s all about family, you know)
8. REALLY, REALLY RECKLESS DRIVING (Annoyance Level: 9)
I’d imagine Driver’s Ed teachers scream at the TV an awful lot. Let’s set aside the removal of all rear view mirrors in cinematic vehicles, I understand why, but c’mon, people, at least put on your seatbelt! And, fer cryin’ out loud, if you’re in the driver’s seat, stop looking at the person next to you or in the back seat while conversing with your shotgunners! They can hear you just fine! Keep your eyes on the road, pal!
As for car chases, in a post-Bullitt / French Connection world, they are rarely believable in the slightest (Ronin being one exception). Anyone who’s been in the midst of a congested rush hour knows that some crazy (Baby) driver trying to race 100 MPH on a busy street ain’t gonna get that far (even if they do jump the curb). I’ll suspend my disbelief to an extent, but when a speeding car chase suddenly goes against traffic, that’s where I draw the line. It’s simple physics, people!
SEE: Iron Man 2, at least one Mission: Impossible flick, and I think most of the Bourne movies.
9. A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF FAN SERVICE (Annoyance Level: Varies wildly)
While it wasn’t enough to salvage the entirety of Wonder Woman 1984, Lynda Carter’s cameo as Asteria did elicit a whoop of joy from this aged fanboy who thought the absence of an appearance by TV’s Wonder Woman of the 1970s was one of the first film’s few missteps (that and giving Ares a thin mustache and a sibilance). As most genre filmmakers in the 21st century are lifelong fanboys themselves, it’s understandably difficult to resist the temptation to put in everything they’ve been dying to see in a Star Wars / Trek / James Bond / Spider-Man / et al film since they were kids playing with action figures. And a little bit of fan service is a beautiful thing (FX’s Fargo pays just the right amount of homage to its cinematic inspiration). But when it’s overdone (Terminator: Genysis, Daredevil (the movie), any and everything by JJ Abrams), it becomes more distracting than enjoyable.
SEE: The Avengers, Better Call Saul, Star Trek: Picard (right on the edge, that last one).
10. ACCENTED ENGLISH IN LIEU OF FOREIGN LANGUAGES (Annoyance Level: Contingent upon how good the accent is, but on average, about a 3)
It’s a ludicrous construct if you think about it. But having an actor speak English with a foreign accent in place of using the character’s native language has become ingrained shorthand in film and TV. It only truly becomes noticeable if only SOME of the actors are doing it (ala The Death of Stalin). I have a much harder time with a science fiction film in which alien cultures have a mix of Earth accents. C’mon, Star Wars, either make them all from Space England or not!! Make up your mind!
SEE: All American Godzilla movies, the Mission: Impossible franchise, Jojo Rabbit, and anything else with Nazis.
11. GLIBNESS IN THE FACE OF DEATH (Annoyance Level: 3)
It’s called “comic relief” for a reason. If characters reacted to life-threatening situations as you or I would in real life, movies would be populated with people mostly doing nothing but screaming, running, and cowering in the corner. Oh, and live-streaming the incident on Instagram. But movies that get our heart rates up need to have leveling agent, which usually takes the place of a well-turned phrase or perfectly-timed joke. Sure, pith in the face of peril is as unrealistic a scenario as being stalked by a knife-wielding serial killer or a marauding alien, but when they work, it as much a tension breaker as when your racist uncle decides to leave the cookout early. Or something. I’m having a hard time coming up with a funny simile, perhaps because my life is not currently being threatened.
SEE: Independence Day, Midnight Run, Thor: Ragnarok (actually TOO many jokes in this one!)
12. IN SPACE, EVERYONE CAN HEAR EVERYTHING (Annoyance Level: 5)
Adherence to the “science” part of science fiction is spotty at best in most movies and TV shows, nowhere more so than ignoring the fact that the vacuum of outer space precludes there being sound (hence, Alien’s classic tag line, although since there are audible explosions in that film, I have to imagine you could also hear someone scream). One of the things I loved about the Battlestar Galactica reboot was its silent space battles). Sure, when the Phantom Zone villains are having a freaking conversation on the moon in Superman II, that’s a bit much to take. But you know what? This stuff’s not real. Let the Star Destroyer and the Klingon Bird of Prey go boom. It’s fine.
SEE: Again, almost everything except Battlestar Galactica, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and one quick scene in 2007’s Star Trek reboot.
12. FRAAAAAANKIE! (Annoyance Level: 1, and then only if it’s “My Way” or “New York, New York”)
Music Supervision is a great job. You help filmmakers select and/or secure songs to be used in movies and TV shows. The best ones have an encyclopedic knowledge of music that allows them to avoid the usual aural clichés that have been done to death (can we just ban “Bad to the Bone” and “Walking on Sunshine” from ever being used in anything ever again, please?).
But while some might think the work of Frank Sinatra is overused, I shall never wince at the placement of a well-placed Sinatra side. He’s got a song for every possible human emotion you can wrest out of existence, and most of the time, they’re great. I mean, there are exceptions (I’d be okay with never hearing “New York, New York” again as long as I live, let alone when a movie transitions locations from the heartland to the Big Apple). But you can plop “Fly Me to the Moon” or “The Best is Yet to Come” in every wedding scene put to film— or “One for My Baby” over a sad guy at a bar — or “It Was a Very Good Year” any time an older character is feeling wistful— and I’d be okay with it.
SEE: Blade Runner 2049, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Elf
No doubt some of you disagree with my sliding scale on these tropes, and probably have your own list of things that grate your cheese when you’re trying to relax with eight consecutive episodes of that show you’re streaming. Tell ya what… I’ll meet you at that place near the thing that we went to that time and we’ll hash it out over a pint of unnamed beer. Just promise me that if it gets heated, you won’t stab me and walk out on the tab.
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