Why Movie Characters Don’t Follow the “Common Sense” Rule


(The Amazing Spider-Man, 2012)


It seems like every time a new blockbuster hits theaters, there will be a number of humor articles that go along the lines of “5 plots solved in 5 minutes”, “If  <insert movie title> was 10x shorter and more honest”, “Problems in <insert film title> solved using common sense”, and you get the point. I mean these articles are all in good fun and I always enjoy reading them and nodding my head going, “That’s so true!” Yet, I also don’t think a character’s poor judgement regarding their situation makes the film less believable or poorly written. It’s a common accusation, “If so and so used common sense then this and that would have never happened.” True, if film characters used common sense more often than they do, they’d get themselves out of a number of awful situations. Clearly those events need to take place in order to make a film longer than 15 minutes. From a marketing and storytelling view, it’s difficult to have a character with the audience’s eyes who can evaluate the situation from a distance and give a “well, duh” type response.

But look at it from the character’s point of view.

If someone placed you in a high stress situation – let’s say aliens are minutes from invading the earth and the odd yet wise character has given you nothing but a flashlight and a frying pan, the love of your life has just run off in tears because he/she believes you care more about the stupid aliens than your relationship (not to mention you missed their birthday party you jerk), you’re still struggling with your own inner demons from your tragic back story, and you’re in the middle of a crowded street – would you make an intelligent and logical decision concerning the events taking place? And again, you may be thinking, “Sure, I can make a good decision”, but can you? The audience sometimes forgets that they look at the film through a special lens. Even Shakespeare played with the idea that the audience is this see all, know all entity. It’s like when a friend asks for advice. It’s easier to figure out a solution for them than it would be if it were you asking for help.

Since these characters are thrown into danger and high stress conditions, common sense becomes much less common. Same thing when a person is stressed out and they tend to think less clearly and logically. Also, these characters are going to be flawed just like any ordinary person. People make terrible mistakes every day so of course these characters will do the same. So yes, character x could have used plan y to avoid this momentous chain of events, but it’s easy to make that decision when the audience is sitting in a controlled and relaxed environment watching as a third party.

I actually like when characters mess up because that’s more realistic to me than the character having the ability to think straight in a jumbled environment. I like seeing how the character deals with the aftermath of the mistake because suddenly they become more human and I get more out 9f the film.

And of course, those humor articles are a lot of fun to read and I like seeing how viewers come up with the most sound decision for the insane situations that happen in movies. For the characters though, those choices are never as evident as they should be, but that’s a pretty accurate reflection of the real world.


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