Recommended reading today is a column from the Escapist where Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, best known for his acerbic game reviews in Zero Punctuation, has some interesting things to say about drama and action sequences.
I agree wholeheartedly with his take — far more so for films than for games, but then I run into the issue in films on a regular basis. I can think of several movies– several franchises in fact — that were killed stone dead for me by the "bigger is better" school of action set pieces, where the actual plots were tissue-thin because the film design lurched from set piece to apparently mandatory set piece irrespective of whether any of it made sense.
I agree with Mr Y that it's the case that where a supposedly human character — or even a superhuman character like Dr Who whose limits are supposed to be not so far from human — is pulling off essentially superhuman feats of agility, coördination, speed and strength, where does the danger go? Either they're built on a human scale, and their human limits and frailties are what puts them in danger, or they're capable of breaking physics over their knee and changing time and space to suit themselves, in which case if bullet time runs out on them (1), why should we not assume that they can simply shrug off the bullets anyway? Action without limits is action without jeopardy, and any suspense so generated is spurious.
It's a little like contrasting Superman and Batman — we know Superman can do superhuman things (2) and as well as the strength and the laser eyes he can presumably be ridiculously fast and precise. Batman is supposed to be human, even though he's superbly trained and fit. If Batman does bullet time, or confidently executes some physical strategy that could plainly only work through a mad coincidence of a hundred different flying pieces of debris being in exactly the right place at the right time, then we're being cheated (3). Throwing all that money and SFX at us in such enormous handfuls, without spending the comparatively small amount, surely, that it would take to properly plot out and account for the sequence, is fundamentally lazy, and bad storytelling. The scene where the character triumphs despite his human limits is more difficult to tell properly, more satisfying to experience (Yahtzee's Indiana Jones example) than the scene where the character triumphs through the spontaneous superhuman capability to ignore the laws of physics — it's one step off a deux ex machina (4).
What's particularly galling is that these ponderous, overlong, over-complicated and under-logicked set pieces frequently trample the plot to death, because no sane plot would have led to them. The plot basically gets kicked to touch along with common sense, credulity and any sense of consistencywhile the enormous swordfight/fistfight/absurd escape/vehicle chase happens, and when the dust has settled all we have are the flapping ends of something that might have been a script, given ten minutes to re-establish itself before the next set piece is wheeled into view, inexorable and unsubstantiated.
Sequels seem to be most prone to this — because of the insistence that each book must "top" the next — and here we do hit territory in which books can be just as guilty, especially if the sequels weren't part of the original plan. If your hero saves the kingdom today, then tomorrow he has to save the world, and, er… then the universe, and then all of the universes and then… The question of "How do you top that?" is a dangerous one, because it's the wrong question. Just repeating the trick on a larger scale is not only unimaginative, it suffers from catastrophic diminishing returns — the ice cream sundae analogue Yahtzee draws, and you're only postponing the inevitable collapse of your house of cards under its own body weight, subject to a sort of storytelling square-cube rule. But then, honestly, I'm not the man to be talking about taking the square-cube rule seriously, after all…
(1) The Matrix sequels get more slack because most of the action set pieces are not happening within the real world. However the key to believability here is consistency — as important as it is to fantasy writers who have magic at their command — if your hero can do X ludicrous thing at point A, then you hve to have a good reason why he can't just do it again the next time someone tries to have a go at him — in a more fantastic or non-real setting that's the bar that must be met, in book, game or film. This category also covers set pieces that would be perfectly OK in themselves, but get shoehorned into the plot against all logic because someone thinks it's a must-have image. Next time, if your evil military plan involves bombing a ground target, at least explain why your strategy involves a ground assault on the same location you're about to bomb, hmm?
(2) It's in the name, dude.
(3) I'm not actually slinging mud at any particular Batman vehicle, but Batman and Superman are a useful pair to contrast.
(4) And if you have a giant monster, don't keep changing how objectively giant it is just between different scenes. That's super-lazy storytelling.