It is a very common movie tactic to have the couple whose relationship has collapsed. One has moved on, and one, usually our main character, has not. They are frustrated, even bitter, about how things have turned out. But it really about regrets. They still love their ex and would be back with them in a flash. But of course, the person who moved on is now in a relationship. And so screenwriters have a problem…how to get the person out of the way before the stories end. And outside of romantic comedies, the solution can often be…um..drastic.
I am about to spoil the crap out of the movie San Andreas.
In San Andreas, Dwayne Johnson’s Ray Gaines and his wife fell apart after the death of one of their daughters. This has led to Carla Cugino’s Emma having moved on with Ioan Gruffudd’s Daniel Riddick. And of course, their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is caught in between. You know that the film wants to get Ray and Emma back together. But they do not have time for the two to have a mature discussion and then an amicable breakup with Daniel. Instead, the film knows what must be done. Daniel must die.
This happens repeatedly in films. Bait. 2012. The Fate of the Furious (sort of). This is a quick and easy way to resolve the problem. Now, in some cases, such as Bait, the person killed gets to be heroic. Which, I guess is nice.
But it is just as likely to be rather unceremonious. In the aforementioned San Andreas, Daniel is with Blake when a massive earthquake collapses a beam on their car. Blake is trapped and Daniel promises he will get help. Except, he basically runs off screaming. In fact, Daniel is repeatedly shown to be cruel and cowardly right up until his death. Up until the point he leaves Blake, he had come across as a pretty decent and nice guy. He was kind to Blake and was clearly into having a good relationship with Emma.
But here is the thing. He is a romantic rival. And he is physically positioned in an opposition to the Rock. While Johnson is large and muscular, Gruffudd is a slighter frame. He works in an office, he is not physically imposing or tough. And this is kind of coded to suggest he is a weak opposition who needs to be swept aside. Making him a vile coward who leaves her daughter to die, while she rushes to find Blake with Ray allows for her to first be angry and then forget about Daniel entirely.
This type of flourish tends to be unnecessary. In the case of San Andreas, you could have made a far better dramatic moment of Daniel running to the door, calling for help and the Ben and Ollie characters seeing him. They race to the door and Daniel returns to the car to start trying to get Blake out. Daniel, Ben, and Ollie work to get Blake’s leg’s free. As they are getting her out, Daniel realizes that for her to successfully get free, he will have to stay in a position that will result in his death. Saving Blake is what he sees as important, and to the horror of the other three, Daniel allows himself to be crushed for their survival.
The fact is, none of Daniel’s later scenes add anything to the film. So you do not lose anything. And he is an entirely unnecessary villain. Natural Disaster stories do not inherently require a human villain.
It seems like the main reason such choices are made are that a romantic rival is made to be not just an impediment to the hero’s romantic situation, but a threat to (most often) their masculinity. And this is where things get to be troubling. The need to make a villain out of the rival to the extent that they are a legit villain before they are killed is a troubling attitude to perpetuate. Killing off a character to make a romatic connection happen is pretty lazy story telling.