While I might be getting dangerously close to hyperbole AND snobbery, I think film intros is a dying art. Or maybe just an underserved, under-considered art. To be fair, I’m pointing mostly to things like MCU movies. In the MCU, we get a lot of characters kinda just showing up with flat character intros. There are a few dramatic flares here and there (Loki’s arrival in “The Avengers,” and even Fury’s), but for the most part, characters are just kind of there.
To keep things fair, I have this problem with many intros in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and the middle film being the extreme exception. That’s where it seems the filmmakers cashed in all their chips. Joker and Batman get great ones, with dramatic flare befitting those characters.
To be even MORE fair, not every movie needs/or should have these kinds of “BIG REVEALS,” a la Sergio Leone movies. But that doesn’t mean films should phone in their character intros.
Example: ‘Casablanca’ is a classic in many ways, not the least of which being its rather standard versions of ‘flare.’ But it still manages a great intro for many characters by using film techniques. Specifically the way we are introduced to Rick, first by people talking about him and then him literally signing his name before we get a shot of Bogart. We are introduced to the idea of Rick — then the literal Rick — through film language. Another great case of ‘standard flare’ is ‘Ed Wood,’ where nearly every character first appears in their ‘home turf.’ Legosi is first shown in a coffin. Film producers are introduced either screaming on the phone while surrounded by posters or in their meat packing plant.
The point is that these are film techniques to show us — rather than explicitly telling us — who these people are. They are character intros THROUGH film rather than simply ‘filmed character intros.’ And it’s in that utilization of film technique that I think gets me the most excited. And why, I feel, more recent movies have left me rather cold. Take ‘The Batman’ as an example, spoilers ahead. An odd case, as it kinda hits 50% success. Both Batman and Riddler’s introductions are outstanding, near iconic, relying on lots of film techniques including sound, score, lighting, other character reactions. On the other hand… do you remember how Selina Kyle first appears? Or Jim Gordon? Alfred? Even Penguin or Falcone? Me neither, and I just watched the movie last night. While an argument could be made that doing too many Big Huge Filmatic Intros could bog down the movie, ‘The Batman’ was already pushing 3 hours, so I doubt they were *that* concerned about film length. Heck… the new Batmobile gets a better introduction than most of the characters!*
To give even more parity, I’m going to make a classification shift. Because I’ve been primarily talking about movies either directed by or targeted at men (white men). Not everything has to fit that mold, but can still work for their stories. “Malcolm X” introduces its main character in a way one might classify as a “nothing,” except we know – given the preceding crane shot and opening speech cut over footage of racial atrocities – that this is a choice. At this point, Malcolm Little is not ‘something huge.’ Not yet.
One genre not known for Filmatic Flare is the rom com, but even in something like ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ we get an introduction to Rachel Chu sitting at a table, staring intently. Almost looks like “nothing,” but then the camera reveals the pile of poker chips in front of her. “CRA” goes from seemingly nothing into something, and it did it with all the requisite ease and (not a perjorative) standard grace. This movie is not going for ’Raiders’ or ‘Star Wars.’ It’s about people. This intro is kinda the bare minimum, but the minimum is enough. The 2005 ‘Pride & Prejudice’ offers a nice, clear, concise and (most importantly here) filmic intro for Mr. Darcy, where his mere presence is enough to stop the entire dance. We don’t see his face, but we see everyone’s reaction to that face.
Shifting genres slightly, both ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Little Women’ open with shots of Saoirse Ronan doing ‘nothing,’ but both shots are deliberate and linger long enough to convey the important info to introduce us to those characters. In ‘Lady Bird,’ we see a mother and daughter lying on a bed together, sleeping and content and facing each other. This tells us that these two love each other, with all subsequent scenes’ evidence to the contrary. ‘Little Women’ introduces Jo with her back to the camera, head down, facing the door of the publishers. We can tell she is hesitant but hopeful, and can infer that hesitancy is a product OF her hope to be published. “Before Sunset” has a cool one that seems to emerge through editing. We hear Jesse describing past Celine, with clips from the prior movie, only to get us cut into seeing the CURRENT DAY Celine, watching Jesse. Beautiful.
When intros fail, maybe it’s a mismatch of flare-to-story that I grapple with, which brings me back to the MCU. I think we’d all agree those are big movies about Big Characters. So why, in 30+ movies with 100+ super-powered people are there, like, 3 good intros? (For the record, I’m thinking of in-costume Spider-Man in ‘Civil War,’ Thor in ‘Ragnarok’ and Hulk also in ‘Ragnarok’).
Maybe the MCU movies are by and large too flat to allow for even the slightest bits of flare. There are attempts here and there, but they sometimes get flubbed (think of Hawkeye’s intro in ‘The Avengers,’ a tracking shot to a guy hanging out).
Why is Hawkeye’s intro in ‘The Avengers’ beneath, say, Henry Hill in ‘Goodfellas?’ Henry is just driving a car, right? Well, not quite. Firstly, Hill’s introduction incorporates action. HE is driving, and he’s the first to hear the noise from the trunk. And second, it’s about scale. Hawkeye is supposed to be an incredible marksman and warrior. What does it tell us about his character that he’s sitting in the rafters watching the Cosmic Cube? It’s an attempt, but it’s a little flat. (Also, Henry Hill gets about 3 intros thru ‘Goodfellas’: the first time we see him is 1, the freeze frame after closing the trunk is 2, and the next time we see him as an adult is 3. All are great). (MCU just reminded me of one other very good filmic intro: Killmonger in ‘Black Panther.’ So, update: 4 for 100).
Again, none of these have to be on some grand Clint-Eastwood-emerging-from-an-explosion level. They often just have to be little something more than nothing while simultaneously fitting the movie.
One series fat with nice, easy, “simple” yet effective intros is the original Star Wars trilogy. Think of Vader and Kenobi’s first on-screen introductions. One guy walks into frame, the other removes his hood. Neither is especially tricky, on paper, except with Vader they knew enough to just frame the costume and let it do the work. And for Kenobi, he removes his hood to reveal he’s not a monster, but a kindly old man who literally says, “Hello there” after scaring people away. ‘Empire’ has other simple-yet-effective moments in the same ilk, sometimes called ‘applause moments,’ where the audience gets a little moment to a. register the face, then b. applaud. These include Luke removing his scarf in the Hoth wilderness, and Han removing his scarf AND hood in the base. Both are more to just show us, “Here are our heroes!” both are “simple,” and both work because they’re more than nothing.
I’m not a super student of film, film intros or that kind of thing. I mostly know what I like, which on the internet makes me both dangerous and potentially dull. However, I get the feeling that the only way to fail at film character intros is to not do them. The way to fail is to go into them in a drab way. Just “Point the camera and character starts talking.” In other words: don’t be later-period Kevin Smith. Be “Clerks” era Kevin Smith, where Dante falls out of a closet and Jay shows up pretending to be a customer just as a joke. Heck, even the title cards “Jay and Silent Bob” counts for something. Do something, movies!
*Honestly, the Batmobile has a pretty great history of dramatic, exciting, cinematic introductions, so I don’t 100% hold this against this new movie. The thing’s a star.