Today, I discuss the notion that when a film or TV show is set at a certain scale, there’s only so many people that can die in the film/show for it to still have a ‘happy’ ending.
This is the Cronin Theory of Pop Culture, a collection of stuff I’ve noticed over the years that I think hold pretty true.
This one is a bit tricky, since I think it involves scale to a certain degree. For instance, if you’re battling in an intergalactic war, this applies less than if you’re just a regular guy trying to save, say, an office building filled with employees enjoying a Christmas party.
In Die Hard 2, terrorists take control of a busy airport in the middle of a snowstorm so that they can hijack a plane and escaped with a drug lord dictator. John McClane is there to pick up his wife at the airport. He realizes something is wrong, so he tries to stop the bad guys.
One of the most effed up scenes occurs when the villains, who have taken control of the air traffic control tower (and are therefore not allowing any of the many jets circling the major airport to land), try to dissuade McClane and airport security from trying to stop them by using their control of the airport to alter the readings of where the ground is and so when a British jet with 200 people on board is told to land, the ground comes up too quickly and they crash. John valiantly runs to the runway with flares, hoping that he can somehow warn them in time, but he can’t and they all die.
In the end, John has killed all of the bad guys (while their deaths have left a big enough explosion that the other jets can see the runway and land safely, including the jet with John’s wife in it), but I always find that happy ending to be seriously tainted. HUNDREDS OF INNOCENT PEOPLE ARE DEAD! It was one of the biggest death totals in film history at the time!
Compare that to Alderaan being destroyed in the first Star Wars and the scale is so different. When the scale of the conflict is billions of lives, millions of lives lost doesn’t have the same drama.
However, when you’re working on the level of characters like John McClane, your happy endings really aren’t happy when hundreds of innocent people still die.