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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Some Thoughts on Protagonists and Antagonists, via Cars 3

This is just going to be a short piece, but it’s something that bugged me while I was watching a movie, so I might as well put into words why I didn’t think it worked. It never hurts to think things through and try and learn from them.

I saw Cars 3 over the weekend, as part of my Pixar completionist streak, and was pleasantly surprised. In all honesty, I enjoyed Cars*, but don’t really remember anything about Cars 2, so my expectations going in were pretty tempered. Add in a pre-release campaign that seemed…unclear at best, and I think it’s fair to say that this was the least excited I had been for a new Pixar movies in a while.

*I don’t know if I’d put it all that high among Pixar’s in-studio rankings, but that’s as much a reflection on their strong track record as the movie itself.

In the end, the movie turned out mostly good. It will definitely stick in my brain longer than Cars 2 did, so at the very worst, so it has that going for it. However, there were just some minor complaints I had, most of which are tied to some of the thematic things going on. This will contain some light plot spoilers as a result.

Basically, it all boils down to this: the villains of the movie just don’t work. This isn’t the end-all, be-all, of course. The personal growth arcs of the main mostly work… except that they insist on using these “villains” as the end demonstration of that growth, which sort of undermines the arcs a little, in my opinion.

The main antagonist of the film is Jackson Storm, a cocky new racer who’s leading a wave of young rookies leading something of an analytic revolution in the sport that’s slowly edging out series protagonist Lightning McQueen and his contemporaries. I’m going to stop right there and note that this is…kind of in my area of expertise, I guess you could say. I’m obviously a huge baseball fan and a numbers guy, so I am well-read in the pushback of older fans against “stat nerds invading their territory” and all.*

*For a real-world first-hand account of this type of thing, refer to something like Three Nights in August, or just binge-read the Fire Joe Morgan archives.

Thankfully, the movies doesn't go full-on down this road, as I was worried it might. There are some weird undercurrents, but there’s almost as much in the other direction, so it never really coalesces. Win probabilities for a race are presented as an insult when Lightning learns he’s being given a ~1% chance of a win*, but you could also point out that it’s only being portrayed this way because people not familiar with the numbers are wielding it thusly. Lightning shuns his new trainer Cruz’s new, optimized training program for his idea of some “good old-fashioned training”, but it’s worth noting that the movie ends with his trainer ultimately correct in her methods as well. The two schools of thought are initially presented a little more oppositionally than they really are in today in most sports. Of course, not every sport is as far along in this as baseball, so maybe my judgment is just skewed here, and in the end it does seem to imply that both have their validity. Maybe it’s just my personal experiences that make me feel Pixar is a little late on this story front; I’ll let it slide. There’s a lot of stuff that could go either way on this theme, and maybe I’m just too colored by personal experience to give it the full benefit of the doubt it deserves.

*The math in this part is actually comically bad, so I just have to poke fun at it now. Lightning’s just greater than 1% chances of winning are presented as evidence he should hang things up…except that Storm’s chances are given as greater than 95% (which is itself ridiculous for a sport prediction, but I digress). I forget the exact numbers, but even at the time, I realized that Lightning’s chances put him no worse than fifth overall, which isn’t bad given that the movie also establishes that this is a field of over 40 racers, and certainly not overwhelming evidence that it’s time to hang things up. Writers, don’t ever be scared to ask your math friends for help if you need it.

So in the end, it doesn’t make the analytics geeks out to be the bad guys, but it sure does go all-in on Storm in that regard. That’s where it feels weakest, in my regard. After an opening montage of Lightning and his contemporaries pulling mildly-grating pranks on each other over their careers, Jackson’s introduction that tells us he’s bad news is….a come-from-behind win where he tells runner-up McQueen that he grew up watching him and that it’s “an honor to finally beat him”.

That’s an incredibly tame initial offense, and the movie doesn’t seem to realize it. It’s cocky, sure, but that’s been Lightning’s major character flaw since the first movie, and as the opening shows, it never fully went away. Lightning takes maximal offense and begins slowly escalating things with Storm from here on out, and the movie never seems to realize how bad it makes their protagonist look.

And it’s weird, because the movie recognizes how bad he looks on other fronts. Him realizing how he’s treated his new trainer Cruz is literally one of his major character moments. Him coming to terms with being the old guard of the sport is another, which is weird that it never draws a connection to that Jackson’s initial offense that started off his downward spiral. It sort of gives the movie a slight note of tone-deafness.

On that front, there’s also the secondary “antagonist”, Lightning McQueen’s new sponsor Sterling, and his pitch to get Lightning to consider retirement. Sure, Sterling seems to be pushing him out before he feels he’s ready, but at the same time, Lightning has been showing signs of slowing down and is not just proving resistant to adapting his training, but seems to be actively trying to chase his personal trainer off. And the resolution to Sterling’s agreement with Lightning is the latter pulling a classic “Ain’t No Rule” Rules Loophole trope that only seems sensible to us as the audience because we’re in the protagonist’s mindset and follow the thinking.

It bugs me when works of fiction have to take those kinds of shortcuts to put the antagonists in the wrong, and it’s especially galling here because this is the second "antagonist" it’s had to take these kinds of shortcuts with. Centering the movie’s morality on the protagonist like that feels sloppy, and can jar some viewers off the film’s wavelength, which is why it’s good to try and avoid these things as a writer.

Of course, these aren’t the entirety of the movie. It’s just weird, because it leaves some rough patches on the narrative that feel like they still needed some smoothing-over. Coming from a studio like Pixar, with so many examples of immaculate scripting over the years, it just feels a little off, but ultimately it doesn’t sink the movie and the main character arcs entirely, and is really quite enjoyable outside of those flaws.

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