Subverting the female stereotype: Wonder Woman

I saw Wonder Woman with my best friend yesterday, and I cannot let another day pass without talking about how important a movie this is. Not only is this the character’s first solo feature film, it also represents a lot more, and had unfair questions to answer:

  • Can Patty Jenkins prove she’s director enough for this film?
  • Can female superhero movies succeed?
  • Can Wonder Woman fit with our modern interpretations of superheroes?

wwposter5

Wonder Woman’s origin is a mix of Ancient Greek mythology and magic. When Wonder Woman was rumored for the Batman V Superman film, naysayers thought she couldn’t fit in our modern world of superheroes. She’s too mystical, too out-there.

“But,” you say, “We’ve had Dr. Strange. We’ve got Thor. Constantine, even. Those succeeded with mythology and magic backgrounds.”

Yes but they weren’t girls, were they?

An unfortunate underlying element of the Hollywood system is how sexist it is, even in this modern day and age. It’s full of old white men who expect to see the same things all the time. Guys are the action heroes, women are the love interests.

Guys, we’re tired of being just the love interest.

It’s quite sad that it got this way because early Hollywood was so pro female in the beginning. Prolific directors like Alice Guy Blache and Lois Weber were women. Female film editors were thought to have a particular eye for the cut. At some point, these attitudes switched, and it’s why we still have an abysmally low ratio of female crew members, directors and big budget films. But hopefully, we’re seeing more evidence that this will change.

This list of American superhero movies, shows how there are nearly 20-30 male or ensemble films to one female-led film. It’s easy to list the ladies, in fact, because they are so few: Supergirl (1984), Tank Girl (1995), Barb Wire (1996), Witchblade (2000), Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005) and Wonder Woman (2017).

I largely blame movies like Catwoman and Elektra for making it seem that female-led comic book films can’t pull their own weight.

I’ll say it once: They bombed not because they had a female lead, but because they were bad movies.

People with the supposed “know how” at the top see some female films tanked. “We won’t make that mistake again! Bring on another Spider-man or Hulk or Batman or Superman reboot.”

It has been 12 years since the last female led comic book film (Elektra) and Patty Jenkins is the first female director to head a superhero film with a female protagonist. Wonder Woman has a huge weight on her shoulders.

Even though she’s had unreasonable expectations — literally the future of female superhero movies thrown at her — Wonder Woman succeeded.

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 10.44.57 AM.png

Article from Deadline.com

Great Representation

Something you’re struck by during the introductory moments of the film is how Themyscira is completely populated by woman — already something odd to the movie goer’s eyes — but also that the Amazons are diverse with different skin tones and varied muscular bodies. If this movie had been made 10 years ago, you better believe they’d all be cookie cutters with American accents.

Amazons

Article on DailyMail

The male characters were also well represented. Steve Trevor, the obvious love interest, plays an important role. The team Diana works with infiltrating the front is comprised of a cast of colorful, diverse characters.

1918 photo

It doesn’t end there. Secretary Etta Candy gets some great lines. One of the villains is a sinister, complicated woman. The list goes on.

Great Dialogue

Screenwriter Allan Heinberg has credits from Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, so he already knows how to write women.

Although Diana is a stranger in a strange land, she never comes across as stupid when she’s experiencing life in London. She speaks her mind, is very matter-of-fact about how she sees the world and asks important questions about what she sees. She might not understand revolving doors, but she has great insight into bringing peace to a distraught world.

Both True and Something New

Some of the early complaints of long before filming had completed was changes were to the source material. Diana was not wearing the bathing-suit like outfit, it wasn’t as “American” as it could be, it was set during WWI instead of WWII.

But, the filmmakers retained the most important elements of each, and reinvented it into a faithful and new Wonder Woman. Her armor is appropriate for an Amazonian warrior and incorporates American elements: the color scheme, the stars on her tiara and the eagle symbol in her chest-plate.

The timeline was switched to the Great War because, frankly, we have too many films set during WWII and Captain America had claimed that war. It only made sense to shift the patriotic sensibilities of Diana’s fight for mankind to the War to End All Wars.

Diana’s mystical heritage is retained but altered. It’s worthy of note that in the comics, she’s had several different origins. The movie origin played on classic tropes while making it fit for this new story.

Respectful Shot Design

If a man had been the director, you can almost guarantee we’d have gratuitous shots of Diana’s “assets” and something silly thrown in there like showering nude with the other Amazons. How many times must we see a Transformer flipping around a camera angle owned by Megan Fox’s butt? How many times must female clothes be torn in suggestive places?

Instead, we subvert that stereotype. There’s a delightful scene early on when Diana speaks with Steve Trevor while he’s bathing in a mystical pool. He becomes self-conscious, but both Diana and the camera never shame him. In one moment, Diana looks down and asks “What’s that?” Being from a land of only women, we can only assume she’s curious about male biology. It’s actually his wristwatch she’s staring at, something that surprises both Steve and the audience.

This film found the balance between action, suspense and great heart. The entire team pulled all the stops to make this the best summer tentpole you’ll see all year. Skip Pirates 10: Dead Men Yet Again and Baywatch: The Unwanted Reboot. See this movie twice.

 

The (Super) Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. This book introduced the hero’s journey and popularized the theory of comparative mythology — the theory that humans have the impulse to create stories that stem from universal themes.

Campbell’s work focused on religious and historical mythology, but it didn’t take long to see this applied to fiction.

George Lucas is the first to credit Campbell with inspiring the mythological structure of Star Wars. For that reason, many look to Star Wars as a way to teach the hero’s journey, and hopefully use that formula to make more blockbusters.

heros journey graphThe steps of the hero’s journey:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach to Inmost Cave
  • Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection
  • Return with Elixir

The (Super)hero’s Journey

We’ve seen the classic superhero origin story a hundred times. They all have the basic formula to get our average Joe or Jane into hero-mode.

This is actually a parallel of the classic hero’s journey, retold for modern audiences and nerdy sensibilities.

The examples I use are from solo superhero movies. Ensemble films won’t be considered.

Ordinary World

  • Smallville, Kansas.
  • Gotham before Thomas and Martha Wayne are murdered.
  • A day in the life of a bullied NYC teenager.

These are the humble beginnings of our heroes. This is what is supposed to make the protagonist relatable and have us invested in what happens to them.

Call to Adventure

  • Tony Stark’s caravan is attacked and and creates his first Iron Man suit.
  • When things seem to be going well for Wade Wilson, he is diagnosed with cancer.
  • Steve Rogers signs up for the service and is picked for the super soldier serum.

Closely related to the inciting incident, this is when it’s clear that our hero’s world is about to change.

Refusal

Some of our heroes, especially those in the Chosen One subcategory, will refuse the job they are meant to do. Superman in Man of Steel spends much of his adult life hiding who he is until events force him to intervene.

This refusal is then reversed, sometimes by a traumatic event or some conflict that only our hero can resolve. It’s every villain origin and early death scene.

Meeting with the Mentor

  • Alfred Pennyworth for Batman.
  • Pa Kent and Jor-El for Superman.
  • Dr. Strange being trained by The Ancient One.
  • Uncle Ben, whose famous words are so pivotal they could only be uttered in one trilogy.

These are the people who shape our protagonists into the heroes they will become. It is their words that are repeated in our hero’s darkest hour. Remember, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Crossing the Threshold

Our hero can willingly start their adventure, or they can be pushed with tragedy or conflict. Oftentimes in superhero stories, the parents or a loved one is killed off or taken, pushing them to seek justice.

Uncle Ben dies to push Peter into becoming a hero and not just some punk goofing off in a costume. This can sometimes be the direct result of The Refusal — good guilt-causing material for an angsty teen hero.

Learning from — and losing — the mentor is a key part on this journey. It is when they lose that person (Pa Kent and Uncle Ben like to die all the time for a reason) that the hero comes of age.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

  • Spider-man taking down a number of unnamed and easy foes.
  • Iron Man bombing the enemy as a one-man army.
  • Montages, montages, montages.

I’ve also heard this called the “fun and games” section of the story. This is when our hero is testing their limits, saving people and enjoying their power. Can be done in montage mode. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt…

Approach to Inmost Cave

  • Scott Lang sneaking in and being caught on his last heist.
  • Clark Kent meeting with a priest before going to face Zod, who could destroy him.
  • Bruce Wayne, thrown into a pit and climbing the worst rock wall ever.
  • Logan, taking a shot of serum, knowing it’s his last fight.

Ordeal, Reward, The Road Back

The finale. Big explosions, toppling buildings, mayhem and property damage.

The hero after the big battle, scarred but triumphant (maybe). Cheering crowds optional.

The opposite of the Call to Adventure.

Resurrection

  • Bruce healing after his back is broken.
  • Hancock shot.
  • Superman poisoned by kryptonite.

A couple of my examples are a little too on-the-nose, but hospital and near death scenes are part and parcel with our superheroes.

This is the lowest point, the near-death moment from which the hero must rise.

Return with Elixir

 

This is the moment of triumph when our hero has prevailed and we look forward to fighting another day.

At the end of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, we see Batman hanging up the cape and cowl for a more ordinary life. In Deadpool, our hero is reunited with his love and they jam to Careless Whisper. As one should.

Flying off into the sunset

In the Richard Donner Superman films, Christopher Reeve’s Superman flew around the world and smiled at the camera. That motif was even carried into Superman Returns, which was a loose sequel. The end of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films we see Spidey swinging into action.

We like the idea that our hero keeps going, adventure never ends and everything will be alright.

It’s also a good way to end if you want a bushel of sequels.

Sources:

The Hero’s Journey – Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

For more insight into the Hero’s Journey, check out:

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

 

Where did it go wrong? Suicide Squad

Where do I even start?

I’m going to discuss several points that led to a flawed script and a mess of a story.

Music

This film, or at least the editing of it, leaned too heavily on music to tell a story and make it seem cool.

You can get a sense of this haphazard use of music to make the story seem engaging back in the days of the trailer releases:

The first teaser trailer:  “I Started a Joke” by ConfidentialMX ft. Becky Hanson. Slow music, slow editing and building tension. The first trailer was subdued, more DC-movie style.

Official Trailer #1: Conveniently around the time that Batman V Superman was being made fun of for being too dark and gritty, the tone in the Suicide Squad trailers shifted to be more fun and upbeat. Like…a Marvel movie.

The hijinks of the Squad are portrayed against the very popular “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Pratfalls and silliness punctuate through the music to sell the point, like the ridiculousness of Boomerang jumping out of a duffel bag and punching everyone around him.

“Let’s do something fun,” Enchantress says in this trailer. I don’t recall her actually saying that in the movie, but the message is clear: We’re not like other DC movies. We’re the fun ones!

Official Trailer #2: “You Don’t Own Me” by Grace ft. G-Eazy and “Ballroom Blitz” by Sweet. The message here: We’re STILL the fun ones! “You Don’t Own Me” transitions into the more upbeat “Ballroom Blitz” — an indicator of the over reliance of music to show emotion.

We see this in the movie itself. There are so many music cues in this film that they run together. Each character is introduced with their own theme, and since they all come up in Amanda Waller’s description of her Task Force X idea, all their introductions meld together, thereby taking the punch out of their individual stories.

Harley’s intro contains Rick James’ “Superfreak.”

There are two major music cues that carry this one “Suit Up” scene. This happened throughout the movie, which –frankly — is overkill.

Music does a lot to help get at the emotion of a scene, but when you rely soley on music to be fun, instead of fully developing your characters and having a worthwhile script, no amount of catchy tunes will save your film.

 

Characters

It’s very difficult to pull off an ensemble film. Suicide Squad had Harley, Deadshot, Diablo, Capt. Boomerang, King Croc, Katana, Enchantress, Rick Flagg and Amanda Waller as main characters. When you have so many people to focus on, it’s difficult to give them the recognition they deserve.  Katana and Captain Boomerang could have gone home since they were so underrepresented. King Croc wasn’t all that interesting — he’s just a big scary looking guy who eats a lot. Deadshot had a nice backstory, Harley’s felt too rushed, and Diablo got one look-back scene that was interesting and that’s it.

But Avengers did it twice, you might argue. Yes, they did. But most of those characters had their own solo movie or at least appeared in other movies like Black Widow and Falcon did. I’d argue that the Avengers could have been stronger with fewer characters, but we knew them already. The combo movie didn’t have to carry the weight of each person’s introduction.

Did I want a solo movie for all the Suicide Squad members? Hell no. It doesn’t warrant it. But with better focus on a couple characters, or a single strong viewpoint character (I’d argue mostly for Harley, but Deadshot could have made a good angle), this movie would have been that much closer to succeeding.

Harley Quinn is getting her own solo movie, possibly with the Birds of Prey involved (please oh please), and that I’m hopelessly optimistic for.

CG/Special Effects

I am usually not one to nitpick on the quality of computer generated images in a film. Mostly because they’re so ubiquitous but also because that’s the most shallow form of critique. It’s like back in the day when a new video game came out and kids would talk about how great the graphics were.

However, the CG in this movie was all over the place. Sometimes it was very well done. The destructive powers of Enchantress were beautifully rendered. But then you’ve got incredibly fake muzzle blasts from Deadshot’s automatic weapon in his proving scene, and super fake fire for all of Diablo’s backstory.

Title Design/Pop Art

I think that in a rush to get this film edited down and make it more fun and quirky, these fun title sequences were added in at the last minute. Sure, they look cool, but the problem is that this style COMPLETELY DISAPPEARS from the rest of the movie until the fancy (and over-complicated) end credits. Cool idea bro, but needs some follow-through.

Final thoughts

Critics gave Suicide Squad a 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes (the audience was more lenient, with a 62%).

A combination of factors led to this film’s downfall, and that all boiled down to a non-cohesive package, filled with randomly strung together characters and scenes that were glorified music videos. You can improve a film with great music, CG, humor and more, but you can’t rely on certain elements saving a film that was probably doomed in the script stages.

A Moral Dilemma and A Dog’s Purpose

A recent TMZ video had the Internet in an uproar, and it’s over a pretty innocuous feel-good romp about dog reincarnation.

If you are one of five people who haven’t seen the video already, it boils down to this: an unnamed person on set one day apparently caught footage of animal abuse. The video shows the German Shepherd named Hercules about to jump into a pool of water meant to look like a rushing river. The dog is visibly nervous about going into fast-moving water, and the trainer tries coaxing him in several times. When that does work he pushes the dog in. The dog furiously swims to the end of the pool where he goes under, as divers go after him. That’s when the video stops.

There were a lot of complaints, outraged shares by concerned pet owners, and PETA did their thing. I saw the video. It was shocking and upsetting, and it also made me wonder.

When it comes to the media we consume, and I’m talking entertainment such as books, movies and more, at what point do we decide to enjoy it as is…at what point do we consider bad deeds in its creation?

Not long ago, Orson Scott Card came under fire for being an unapologetic bigot. And I’m not the only one distressed by that fact.

This was surprisingly to me because if I had known him only through his books, especially the Ender’s Game series, I would assume he was an enlightened man. Ender’s Game (the first in a long line of books) especially made a moral point about not judging others…about having compassion for someone once thought your enemy. Yet Card is viciously homophobic. I loved Ender’s Game, read several sequels, and later found out about Card. And then I was conflicted.

Can you enjoy something if you know the creator did something wrong? Should you separate real life just so you can enjoy a piece of fiction? What if someone told you your favorite movie was directed by a person who tortured their actors, a la Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock?

What if you’re an animal lover and you just watched one of the animal actors be treated badly?

If you hear about these transgressions before the fact, you can avoid watching the movie as a form of boycott, hoping a lack of sales will send a message. The real conundrum is how to feel when you find out after the fact.

Later, the producer of A Dog’s Purpose, Gavin Polone, wrote an article that I feel cleared the air. It’s worth a read if you’re even curious about what really went on. A combination of PETA overreaction, selective editing and shameless profit led to this video becoming the problem it did.

However, if Hercules had been hurt on that set due to negligence… I do hope I would have made the conscious decision not to see it. After all, Hollywood seems to gauge “what works” based on that opening weekend. Withholding your $10 could be all you need to do to make a statement.

 

Incurable Sequel-itis: X-Men case study

“To safeguard against the vagaries of popular taste, studios have banked increasingly on sequels and spinoffs, with diminishing returns. “ (Variety)

I came across this article on Box Office decline on Variety and thought I’d take a stab at a response.

If you look at the Now Playing section at any movie theater, you’ll see a number of sequels, adaptations and reboots …and maybe one original film, if you’re lucky. We’ve all complained about the lack of originality in Hollywood, but why does the trend continue?

Let’s look at some numbers, shall we? I’ll use the X-Men franchise as a model.*

  • 2000: X-Men. Box office gross: $157,299,717. Rotten Tomatoes score: 81%
  • 2003: X2: X-Men United. Box office gross: $214,949,694. Rotten Tomatoes score: 86%
  • 2006: X-Men: The Last Stand. Box office gross: $234,362,462. Rotten Tomatoes score: 58%
  • 2009: X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Box office gross: $179,883,157. Rotten Tomatoes score: 38%
  • 2011: X-Men: First Class. Box office gross: $146,408,305. Rotten Tomatoes score: 86%
  • 2013: The Wolverine. Box office gross: $132,556,852. Rotten Tomatoes score: 69%
  • 2014: X-Men: Days of Future Past. Box office gross: $233,921,5304. Rotten Tomatoes score: 91%
  • 2016: X-Men: Apocalypse. Box office gross: $155,442,489. Rotten Tomatoes score: 48%

*data courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo.com and RottenTomatoes.com

That’s 16 years worth of X-Men films.

If we look at the numbers, we see a few of the sequels really ramped up the box office earnings. Enough so that it seemed that as long as you kept making X-Men movies, people would go see them. Everyone likes Wolverine, right? Let’s give him a solo film!

Oh, but that didn’t work. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was an abortive attempt to create a prequel series of films. Fans complained about the irresponsible treatment of Wolverine’s true origin from the comics, and the dreadful version of Deadpool used as a villain in the final act. Origins performed so bad that it nearly could have killed the franchise. In fact, it did kill any other Origins prequels. Magneto’s was slated next.

So, Wolverine got another solo film. That one didn’t do spectacularly, but still was miles ahead of Origins. Now there’s yet another Wolverine movie slated for 2017. (Oh just give his claws a rest, will you?)

The Wolverine cost $120 million to produce. It made $132,556,852 according to the handy-dandy BoxOfficeMojo.comBut, if you look at IMDB and really dig through the numbers, you’ll see that the film actually made $413,562,477 (Worldwide) as of November 2013. The studio made money. And that’s why sequels keep getting made.

Another great quote from the Variety article:

“It may be a fantasy of mine as a creative producer, but I hope this will remind the studios that you could make five really good movies for the cost of one sequel to a movie that didn’t merit a sequel,” said Matt Baer, producer of “Unbroken.” (Variety)

See, this is the dilemma posed to my Producing class by our professor. He pointed out that many studios look at things in one of two models: You can make a number of cheaper, smaller films and hope to make some money on all of them, or bank your success on one or two big blockbusters that are expensive but hopefully have huge returns.

But remember, even as you and I are condemning Hollywood’s practices of going the easy route and re-­hashing old ideas – we are part of the problem.

The reason the bigwigs in Hollywood keep doing sequels, reboots and adaptations is that there is a built ­in audience.

There’s the bad ones too. The ones that make you scratch your head and wonder where it all went wrong. Why did Independence Day need a sequel 20 years later? Why did we reboot Ghostbusters? Couldn’t we have done another female led buddy film?

I read a book on writing adaptations and the one lesson that stuck with me is this: You owe nothing to the source material. That opened up possibilities but also worried me.

It’s when you owe nothing to the source material like flops like The Last Airbender offend our silver screen. On the flip side, you can also get fantastic adaptations such as Deadpool, which mixed characters from the comics spectacularly. Wade’s buddy, for one, was a blend of two characters, and Negasonic was only taken from the comics by name and given cooler superpowers.

There needs to be an appropriate amount of give and take, and a willingness from the Powers That Be to create new, different things. If you build it, they will come. You just have to have something good. You can’t throw Jupiter Ascending at us and then whine that nobody wants originality.

At the heart of it all: You need to tell a good story. All other factors – budget, high profile actors, licensed characters – should be secondary.

Audiences are not stupid. Everyone has consumed enough media to be a bit of an amateur critic themselves, and in these days of social media omnipotence, you want those mini­critics to extol the virtues of your film. It’s the ones who gush about how hilarious Deadpool is that swell a box office to $363,070,709 in gross ticket sales, with an opening weekend that blew the entire pantheon of X-Men films out of the water.

If a story is all over the place and a main character is not interesting or sympathetic, you better hope there’s enough ridiculous action and adventure to keep a couple rounds of audience members mildly amused. If you don’t, they’ll ruin you.

Sources:

Telegraphing emotion through music in reality shows

My deep love of movies has many facets to it. Sometimes I’m simply enraptured by the visual side; jaw-dropping imagery that instills excitement. Other times, it’s a really good story, that wraps me into a completely fictional world and makes me care as if it were my own. And then, there’s the wonder of the soundtrack.

I could probably devote several blog posts to the art of soundtrack music, but we’ll start here for now.

Music is telling you how to feel

Okay, spooky, but why?

I believe it’s a carry-over from ye olden days of early film, when movies were jittery black and white moving pictures projected without sound in dark theaters. Well, not completely without sound, because the projectors could be loud, rattling things. To cover up that noise, pianists would hammer away at their ivory keys, playing to the action on the screen and covering up the annoying racket of the projector.

By the time sound film came along, the idea of music playing during the story had already become ingrained in people’s minds. Movies are now almost never without some sort of musical soundtrack. The soundtrack, like the moving picture itself, evolved into its own art form.

Reality Shows

I don’t watch a lot of reality shows (don’t have much patience for something without a plot) but the few I have watched I’ve begun to notice the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle cues present in the production music. In order to up the drama, the show does a little subliminal mind control.

The music utilized in reality shows tries to tell you how to feel about a situation by playing something with a direct emotional response: i.e. sad, slow music for a depressing moment, upbeat quick tempo music for a happy moment.

I’ve noticed this “telegraphing” (aka Mickey Mousing) happening in reality competition shows….a lot. I watch very few reality shows, but the few I have seen have been so obvious with their use of telegraphing, I can’t help but mention them.

Face Off – Syfy

This competition show pits a number of movie makeup artists against each other for a grand prize that includes working in the film industry. It’s a great show for anyone interested in filmmaking to check out, because you see the level of planning and immense amount of work that goes into creating fantastical creatures.

It’s a reality competition show, so there’s all the emotional drama you’d expect. Now, if you notice, whenever something is good or bad for a contestant during the judging portion, certain tracks will play:

The editor of this show dramatizes emotions and makes you feel positive or negative about a contestant’s results by what music and sound effects they play over the judges’ commentary.

If you watched the clip above,  you’ll see several contestants showing off their creations to the judges. The music underscores the initial discussion, adding a layer of unease and concern for the artists through its use of echoing undertones and dark, minor key notes. Are they going to make it? Did they make a mistake with some of their choices?

Then, as an emotional shift takes place and the judge says something kind, a snare drum/cymbal”Whoosh” plays and the music changes tempo, with higher, brighter notes. It automatically feels more upbeat.

Chopped Jr. – Food Network

I was watching Chopped Jr. recently and realized they do the exact same thing. I’m now assuming this is standard operating procedure in most, if not all, reality-based TV shows.

When the judges are telling the kids what they did well, the music is upbeat. As soon as they mention a misstep (their fish was overcooked, sauce was runny, whatever) the music immediately shifts. Combined with the reaction shots of the kids responding to these comments, we’re supposed to wonder who is next on the chopping block.

In the clip below, we see a contestant named Emma creating her dish. When things start to go wrong, the music mirrors her anxiety:

Chopped Jr uses a sort of staccato, picked guitar to indicate something bad is going down. Emma’s candy is burning, and she has none left. Uh-oh! This is grounds for being chopped. Tensions are running high.

To show Emma has some hope, the music shifts into a quicker tempo, now strumming and a little rock-n-roll.

Final Thoughts

The next time you find yourself watching a reality show, pay special attention to the music in the background. There’s a reason why it’s there. Ask yourself what this show might be like with completely different music, or no music at all.

Now that you’ve noticed the role of soundtrack music in reality TV, it’s going to be hard to be oblivious to its influence.

Thoughts & Observations: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

This is it. I’ve reached the end of the prequels, the end of the original three (The Holy Trinity of Wars-in-Stars) and I now look forward to the modern take on the seventh installment. It’s been quite a ride folks.

Alternate Titles: Last of the Jedi?

  • Today in TL;DR ….another Death Star? Like, the bad guys are ripping off their own idea? Okay, I’ll play along.
  • Dude is obviously more afraid of the Emperor than of Vader, which means Vader is doing something wrong.
  • R2D2 and C3PO look like they’re going to see the Wizard. If the Wizard was a large, slothful, disgusting slug-thing.
  • R2 somehow has the fine ability of lying his way into Jabba’s clutches to get him and Threepio exactly where they need to be, which begs the question: how can everyone understand his random assortment of beeps?!
  • Han Solo. “He’s still in carbonite!” Until Ford gets a pay raise, I assume.
  • Added CG characters are unnecessary in this whole dance scene. Even the dance scene seems like something added in the 90s/2000s as unnecessary movie-lengthening fodder.
  • Green dancer lady gets to meet the Rancor!
  • Jabba comments on the bounty hunter who brings in Chewie. “This bounty hunter is my kind of scum.” Jabba really looks like a mob boss in this scene.
  • Also, that bounty hunter is very dainty. Could that be Leia in disguise? Please be Leia.
  • I don’t know about you guys, but Lando is lookin’ mighty stylish in that helmet.
  • Hibernation sickness=weakness and blindness. Okay I’ll play along.
  • LEIA! It IS you. Such a boss.
  • Okay Georgie (Lucas) — If you were going to digitally replace a character, why not that blue rubbery elephant that belongs on Nick Jr.? Just a thought.
  • I supremely don’t like Jabba’s little muppet friend who cackles at everything. Little jerk. I’ve never wanted to kick a muppet so bad. Thanks for bringing up these new feelings, Star Wars.
  • Luke’s getting really, scary good at this Jedi mind-trick stuff.
  • The color of Luke’s outfit looks totally Dark Side. Cool.
  • The Rancor! I mean…Bantha? It’s a good thing this monster reaches for Luke in slow motion or else he’d never escape.
  • Half-naked guy gets emotional when the bantha dies. I think it was his long lost brother or something.

Fantastic quotes:

Han Solo: “How we doing?”

Luke: “Same as always.”

Han Solo: “That bad, huh?”

…and…

Jabba: “You will be executed immediately.”

Han Solo: “Good I hate long waits.”

  • The dialogue is so delectably quippy in this movie! I suddenly don’t hate Han like I should after his whole “I know” thing last movie.
  • The nodding scene! Cool turn around when Luke does that Jedi flip around in mid-air while falling gig. And a Wilhelm Scream!
  • They dispatched Boba Fett pretty well. And this is when it really hit me that Boba Fett never really did anything ever. He just sort of exists. Like, how does anyone even know his name? Does he have more than one line in the three original movies?
  • Yeah, Leia chokes Jabba! Get him girl! Show him who’s boss!

Leia

Let us henceforth replace all Slave Leia imagery with this badassery.

  • Another Wilhelm Scream for this scene? Now you’re just getting greedy.
  • When the Emperor appears in Evil HQ, he’s introduced in a really far away extreme wide shot. His posse enters in red, which really stands out impressive-like in a sea of white Stormtroopers.
  • When the scene returns to a wide shot, the Emperor’s posse is suddenly in dark blue. Strange. Did someone forget to colorize these things in the remastered version?

WS

  • Last of the Jedi? Why can’t Luke just train some new peeps, huh?
  • Yoda disappeared when he died. I have many existential questions about this.
  • “I don’t know, fly casual!” Oh, naturally –What Chewie is thinking, probably.
  • There hasn’t been a single arm dismemberment all movie! Luke’s Terminator-hand getting zapped was close, but no cigar.
  • Leia gains a new teddy bear friend on the planet Endor.
  • Red on one side of room, blue on the other. Great dichotomy between Vader and Emperor. Different types of evil juxtaposed, or interior decorator just getting really modern all up in here?
  • Chewie is always getting trapped or imprisoned. Like, seriously, wtf dude.
  • The Endor Lollipop Guild is there to great the main cast. They really like shiny things because they start bowing to C3PO.
  • Leia had at least 3 hairstyles so far this movie. Taking after her mother. We may be at war, but this girl doesn’t have to sacrifice fashion sense.
  • What? Leia could be a Jedi? Why doesn’t that movie exist!?
  • Vader wont even train Luke. Luke is going to have some seriously conflicting Daddy Issues now.
  • Han taps a guard on one shoulder while he dashes to the other side. So high school, but so Han.
  • Is the Emperor’s face digitally added back in to match the prequels? Because the lighting and coloration of the face don’t seem to match the hood around it. Just wondering.
  • Chewie gets his crossbow taken away so much, how does he keep getting it back? Does he ever even use it? Is it just for decoration so he has something that people can take away from him?
  • I think Han accidentally dumped a bad guy on a good guy when he picked him up and tossed him over the shoulder.
  • How did these teddy bears have time to rig all these woodland traps? Crafty buggers.
  • Leia holds up blaster. Han: “I love you.” Leia: “I know.” Perfect turn around for what was a crappy line in the previous movie.
  • Luke shows supreme morality in this film. Kinda proud of him. He’s no longer a whiny kid.
  • Vader took his sweet ass time having his change of heart. Oh never mind Luke, he’s just being zapped to death. Continue having your inner dilemma. He’ll wait.
  • During the ending celebration, the teddy bears use Stormtrooper helmets as a xylophone. Though I question the different tones present in the helmets, I’ll hand it to them; they really know how to stick it to the man.
  • Prequels-Anakin ghost appears alongside Obi-wan and Yoda. Eh, I’m actually kinda okay with this. Maybe because of the order I watched the movies in. I did, however, immediately watch the original ending so I could see the difference.

Teaching through example: Zootopia

Plot/synopsis:

Zootopia is about go-getter bunny Judy Hopps, who defies her family’s wishes and fulfills her dream of becoming a police officer in the city of Zootopia. Only problem is: nobody takes this tiny bunny seriously, and she’s delegated to meter maid duties. She gets interested in the case of missing animals across the city and is determined to find an answer, even if at the expense of her job.

Even from the trailer, it was obvious that this would be a metaphor for females breaking the glass ceiling and working extra hard to prove themselves. The writers chose to make Judy a bunny: an innocent, small, traditionally-helpless creature that represents the stereotypes associated with the feminine. The rest of her fellow police officers are typical predators, or at least large formidable prey like her bison chief. Nobody expects this bunny to succeed.

That makes her all the more eager to prove herself. “Anybody can be anything” is this bunny’s attitude, and she lives it to the fullest. She is truly a positive role model for the children going to see this film.

What’s most important–besides the delightful humor, artful design, and excellent voice acting–are the overriding themes of racism and sexism leading to a frightening world. We see the sexism through Judy’s eyes, in her pursuit of her dreams. We see the racism between predators and prey, and especially when stereotyping a species (or ethnicity.) Our other main character is Nick Wilde, a fox, who is labeled as shifty and untrustworthy because of his species.

Judy proves herself better than most by not assuming the worst of Nick the fox. In fact, she rolls her eyes at her parents offering her “fox repellant” and sticks up for Nick in an ice cream shop that tries to deny him service.

There will be somebody, somewhere out there, that thinks this movie is preachy, and that it didn’t need to be made. I would disagree with that hypothetical person. This movie is important, and it shows themes that are integral to helping kids understand at an early age that just because someone is different from them, doesn’t mean they are bad.

Every generation has its teaching models like this.

Examples:

Ferngully (1992): A boy named Zak is brought down to fairy size to see the plight of the fairies when a logging company destroys their home. It’s been like, 20 years since I’ve seen this, but I figure it was as good an early example as any.

Doug (1991–1994): Hey 90’s kids, remember this Nick cartoon series? The characters were varying shades, from beige to purple to blue. These colors were never mentioned, and the stories were average woes befalling the preteen and teenager.

Cats Don’t Dance (1997): A movie that played heavily on themes of disclusion and racism, set in ’30s Hollywood. The animals were the minority figure. They were show people, but never the star. Just look at Miss Dimple’s infuriating golden locks and psycho stare and tell me she doesn’t represent institutionalized racism.

Milestone Comics and Static Shock (2000–2004): Milestone Comics was a company founded in 1993 whose titles were published by DC, and notably was more conscious of promoting minority superheroes. This eventually led to the creation of a cartoon series, Static Shock. The cartoon centered around a teenager named Virgil Hawkins who witnesses a gang war and through an accident ends up with superpowers. This show was an excellent balance between different races, and the traditional “love interest” girls were as smart and capable as the guys.

Judy-Hopps-in-Zootopia

Judy Hopps. Go get ’em, Tiger. Or um…bunny.

Why bother?

Why bother showing race issues through children’s media? I am so glad you asked, hypothetical reader.

I think we need this gentle reminder here and there that there are all different kinds of people out there,  and the world is simply a better place with inclusion and variety. Films, TV shows, and even printed media is so full of white and male representation as to think of it as the baseline for normal. That’s a problem.

Unfortunately, children absorb a lot of what they see and experience. If they keep seeing action movies with buff, white male protagonists, they can’t imagine women or minorities being the hero. If they see one “token” minority character who is present to take the brunt of the jokes, they might start thinking it’s fine to make fun of the different kid at school. Kids learn by example. Where parents leave gaps, the world fills it in. We just want to be sure they’re filling it in with the right stuff.

If we need to teach such lessons through cartoon animals, then so be it.

Spoilery Section:

This is the review section. Here there be spoilers. You have been warned.

This film plays on expectations, as much for the kids’ sake as for adults. Predators vs. prey is not always clear cut. In fact, SUPER DUPER SPOILER ALERT……. it’s the prey that is the villain (no doubt a fear response against a perceived threat from predators). There’s a lot of smart political, socioeconomics at play here. I’d liken it to how some countries feud with others in anticipation of an attack, thereby creating the problem to begin with, but I don’t want to get political here.

There are a few minor missteps with the racism theme that I think go a bit too far. One is where Clawhauser calls Judy a cute bunny, and she gets all uncomfortable and says how only bunnies can call each other cute. Then later, when Nick is playing with the Assistant Mayor’s hair/wool, Judy freaks out and tells him, “You can’t touch a sheep’s wool!” These are both real-world examples of complicated race-tensions that felt a little awkward in this movie. It could have been accomplished otherwise. Maybe someone else wouldn’t think so. I’d need a second opinion.

What might seem like a misstep (but is actually an integral plot point and teaching tool) is after Officer Hopps has solved the case, she says things that are taken out of context in a press conference. She infers that predators are naturally prone to becoming “savage” (aka dangerous), and although she is just repeating information another character told her about how the animals were going crazy, she says the wrong thing to a crowd of fearful reporters who all happen to be prey animals. Good intentions but poor execution lead to Judy accidentally starting an extreme racist reaction to predators in general. One of her buddies even loses his position on the police force because “nobody wants to see a predator when they walk into the ZPD.”

These moments echo so powerfully the irrational fears against minorities that are the root of the problem. Judy only realizes belatedly how her words were taken to the extreme, and resigns in protest.

Zootopia was such a fantastic movie that doesn’t have to talk down to kids to be enjoyable. If you haven’t gotten a chance yet, I suggest you go see it yourself.

Breaking the Fourth Wall vs. Suspension of Disbelief

When you and I watch a movie, we are voyeurs, looking into the on-screen world of people who don’t know we’re watching. We can sympathize, laugh, and judge them while we’re safe from similar scrutiny.

In order to enjoy our on-screen fantasies, we also unknowingly engage in what’s called suspension of disbelief. This is the simple act of accepting what you see and forgetting what is real for the story to unfold. If we didn’t engage in this, there would be no fiction, because you wouldn’t be able to get engrossed in a story. Characters and plots must follow basic in-universe rules, but just about anything goes.

It is when the character  looks directly at the camera and speaks to the audience that something shifts. It’s wrong., unnatural. There’s something a little frightening about being called out by fictional characters. They know we’re here!

That’s breaking the fourth wall.

What is the fourth wall (and how do we break it)?

The fourth wall has its roots in theater. Scenes take place on stage with three real walls, created by the dimensions of the performing space or the set.  The fourth wall is the imaginary one that separates actors from the audience. The terminology carried over into the realm of film. The screen is the fourth wall, and characters usually shouldn’t break that invisible barrier.

“Breaking the fourth wall” is an example of a meta-reference, in which characters acknowledge they are part of a fictional story. The character might speak to the audience watching the film, or reference something they should have no earthly knowledge of, defying all logic of their fictional world.

As I see it, there are two distinct versions of breaking the fourth wall, both of which are fair game for this discussion. They are:

  • A character is aware that they are in a movie, or the plot suggests it.
  • A character speaks directly to the audience.

For reference, you can find video examples of Blazing Saddles, Supernatural, and Ferris Bueller here.

Television Examples

Television shows, especially comedies, get away with the occasional fourth wall break.

Supernatural is all about that kind of flexibility. The show has veers from horror in one episode to humor the next. It is not so surprising that we’ve seen two major plot points revolving around breaking the fourth wall.

In “The French Mistake,” Sam and Dean very literally break the fourth wall of a set and cross over into a parody of our own world, in which they are actors in a TV show called Supernatural. Real world trivia about the show is highlighted for comedic effect, such as the number of ‘67 Impalas used in production, rubber stunt weapons, and the fact that Jensen Ackles used to be on a soap opera.

A similar meta-storyline happens in “The Monster at the End of This Book.” Sam and Dean stumble upon a rare book series about their exploits; each novel representing an episode in the first couple seasons. It’s the work of Chuck the Prophet, but also pokes fun at the Supernatural fanbase.

Dean: (reading about Supernatural fanbase) There’s Sam Girls and Dean Girls and–what’s a slash fan?

Sam: As in Sam-slash-Dean. Together.

Dean: They do know we’re brothers, right?

Sam: Doesn’t seem to matter.

Futurama does this with their cancellation episode. In the made for DVD movie, “Bender’s Big Score,” the Professor talks about how their delivery company, the BOX NETWORK, cancelled them. When the off-screen Network execs are fired, the Professor exclaims they are: “Back on the air! Yes, flying on the air in our mighty spaceship!”

In a more kid friendly example, we have Ultimate Spider-Man, where Peter Parker seems aware that kids are watching his show, and he will frequently stop the action on screen so he can explain what’s going on and make some funny quips. 

Feature Film Examples

A fourth wall break can satisfy dramatic and comedic moments by drawing the viewer further in, as if in a private joke.

In Deadpool, the entire film is from Wade Wilsons’s perspective, and he controls the flow of the action on screen and tells the backstory directly to us. He even makes remarks about actors that the characters in-world shouldn’t know about. When Professor X is mentioned, he asks: “McAvoy or Stewart? These timelines are so confusing,” referencing the actors who’ve played the Professor in the X-Men movies. In the comics, he frequently makes mentions of being in a comic, much to the confusion of his co-stars.

deadpool

In Spaceballs, the Mel Brooks Star Wars spoof, Dark Helmet actually watches the movie they’re in, via instant VHS technology. There are other great examples from this film, such as when the Imperious Forces think they’ve captured the main characters, and the exasperated Captain says: “You idiots! These are not them. You’ve captured their stunt doubles!”

Mel Brooks is also famous for the final scenes of Blazing Saddles.  The goofy Western’s finale takes place at the movie studios where the film is being shot. The main characters watch the end of their own movie in Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Another famous example is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ferris tells his story directly to camera, letting us in on his adventure. We see things from his lighthearted point of view. According to Flavorwire.com, Ferris not only talks to the audience, but makes the audience his accomplice. Had the film been told from another character’s perspective, we would have seen a movie about an irresponsible liar, not some fun-loving guy having a “day off.”

The trope breaks the usual rules of storytelling. In these examples, we’re allowed to alter our typical suspension of disbelief because playing with our assumptions and revealing the fictional world is the punchline. They are subverting normal conventions for a trope that revels in the ridiculous.

Dramatic Effect

In a show like House of Cards (the American one), Kevin Spacey’s character will occasionally address the audience directly, letting us in on the secrets and upping the dramatic tension. We’re in on something big, this says. Stay tuned to see where it all leads.

house of cards

Even the promotional material feels like it’s staring deeply into your soul.

House of Cards, one of the first exclusive Netflix properties to blow viewers out of the water by encouraging binge watching, may be able to get away with fourth wall breakage due to its unusual format. We subconsciously expect something different, edgy and more introspective from a show that lives on the internet. If House of Cards had aired on regular television, comprised 42 minutes over several commercial breaks and had a 22 episode season run…we would have seen a very different show.

By contrast, the horror genre takes vicious delight in using our suspension of disbelief against us.  

At the end of Jeepers Creepers, the audience learns the fate of the main character when the monster looks directly into the camera with the main character’s eyes.  It’s a visceral fear, because up until this point there was no other connection to the audience. Used here, the viewer is meant to feel that their own life may be in jeopardy.

The ending of Paranormal Activity did something similar, when the demonic Katie kills her husband, then looks directly into the camera and attacks. The fear the viewer initially had for the characters on screen can become a fear for themselves.

When Used Poorly

Sometimes “breaking the fourth wall” is a term of derision, given to films that made a mistake in storytelling or tried too hard to be funny. It takes the viewer out of the moment, breaking their concentration on the story and reminding them they are watching a movie. Suspension of disbelief can be crucial to holding a viewer’s attention. Ruining that hold on the viewer can be detrimental to the film, and of course, its box office receipts.

Of course, a fourth wall break can come across as cheap and cheesy as the 3D effects added to B-level horror films. It can feel gimmicky. Some of those moments in which a villain looks directly at camera might appear to be a symptom of lazy screenwriting if it does not earn its place in the film.

So What?

What’s the take-away from this? Breaking the fourth wall is a convention best used sparingly in filmmaking, unless you’ve got a comedy that adapts well to the medium (Deadpool, Emperor’s New Groove). Fourth wall breaks, like Voice Over Narration, are best evaluated whether it will distract too much from the story. In some cases, it can be used to great comedic effect, or help dramatize a situation by drawing the viewer into the story. 

There’s an upcoming film called Hardcore Henry shot completely like a First Person Shooter. This might be an incredibly creative way to tell a story or the trope might get tiresome before half of the movie is finished. We’ll just have to wait and see.