What I Learned From: Wonder Woman

So, about two months ago, not long after I started this blog, I came down with a bad cold and decided to watch Independence Day:  Resurgence.  When I had finished, I had big plans of writing a blog post about what I learned from the experience.  The bad news is that I more or less just learned that it’s a bad movie and didn’t tell a good story.  But in order to stay positive and write something useful, I became bogged down in a long article that compared the move to its predecessor.  I never finished, partly because to do so would have required me to watch Independence Day: Resurgence a second time, sans-fever, which is something that I don’t like blogging enough to do.

I started this post wanting to rejuvenate the series with another movie I watched, this one also over a month ago.  I watched Wonder Woman probably not too long after my Independence Day fix, and I really enjoyed it.  I could, in fact, probably answer the question “What did I learn” with a lot of things.  But I unfortunately, I very quickly realized that somebody beat me to the punch, namely the Youtube channel Just Write with this video:

Copycat.

Frankly I was a little concerned about writing this post because I agreed so much with the above video, and because the series title is so very close to his Youtube series.  It takes a bold person to launch a blog series using the same premise and starting with the same example as a very popular Youtube channel.

But here we are, and I couldn’t help myself.  Maybe next time I’ll address something resonant before “the other guy.”

Bring on the cheese.

About a week after the release date for Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins did an interview with the New York Times.  She said a lot of interesting things (you can read the whole thing here), but something that got a lot of press at the time was this:

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

Hallelueiah.  Because recently, every big-budget summer blockbuster I have gone to has felt compelled to wink at the camera (this may be a biased sample as I generally don’t go to the theaters other than to see big-budget spectacle films). The bigest perpetrator of this has been Disney, both through Marvel Studios and through Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Stuff like this:

And this:

The first one annoys me because it’s just an excuse for levity and a joke in an otherwise tense scene.  The second because it is so absurdly truncated it comes across as winking at the audience and saying “Yeah, we think this is as silly and boring as you do so let’s just get through it as fast as possible.  None of this stuff is important.”  Neither scene takes itself seriously.

Given the more grounded tone of Rogue One (although it had it’s own set of problems), I hope that this is more attributable to J.J. Abrams (who brought the same sense of humor to his Star Trek reboot, on occasion) than a mandate from Disney, but until we see Episdoe VIII, we can’t really know.

As for Marvel, it has become a schtick.  They just cannot stay tonally consistent.  I don’t remember it being as bad in earlier movies.  I don’t remember The Incredible Hulk having this problem.  Nor did Iron Man or Thor from what I remember.  Iron Man, yes, was full of jokes, but never at the expense of the drama.

To be clear I’m not talking about witty one-liners from Tony Stark.  I’m talking about scenes like this:

At first, it came in the form of quips.  I think at least since The Avengers, Marvel has had everybody–even people who weren’t really “funny” as part of their character, making jokes and little observations for the sake of a laugh.  But since then I feel like it has only gotten more brazen.  And, indeed, a lot of fans of the Marvel movies cite the fact that these movies don’t take themselves too seriously and are “fun” as one of the main reasons that they like them so much.  Yet, there has to be some limit, right? Shouldn’t you be able to be fun while still telling an earnest story?  I just watched Kingsman: The Golden Circle and while that movie had plenty of farcical and silly elements, I cannot recall a single time when it compromised its dramatic tension for a wink-at-the-camera joke.

There are clearly movies where self-referential jokes are appropriate.  But the examples I’m thinking of (stuff like 21 Jump Street or The Lego Movie) are intentional parodies.  And yeah, it can work for movies like Ant Man or Spider-Man: Homecoming which, while they include plenty of jokes, are less jarring because the jokes are in keeping with the tone of the movie.  Guardians of the Galaxy would be on this list as well, except for the fact that when watching those movies it seems like they turn the dial up to 11.  The quips and humor through character interactions are completely fine.  It’s clear we are dealing with smartass and silly characters.  But when you make extremely serious characters who have been portrayed as such act stupid or silly simply for a joke, you cannot have tension.  Frankly, this scene about ruined the first Guardians of the Galaxy for me because it takes an intense villain and utterly strips all tension from it for the sake of a joke (also, SPOILERS):

From my take, I don’t want to go as far as Just Write’s video does in trying to tie this with only the use of bathos or with Joss Whedon’s departure.  It’s enough for me to say that I agree with Patty Jenkins.  Across popular culture, people are more and more interested in memes and self-referential winks and nods.  Things that are seens as good because they try, but they’re not trying too hard.

But it’s impossible to maintain an earnestness of story and true character stakes when the writers are constantly trying to shove in silly gags to get a laugh.  And to me, the constant barrage of humor  smacks of insecurity in your own work, and a fear that you have to make fun of yourself before other people do it to you.  It’s the storytelling equivalent of having a self-deprecating sense of humor that at first blush is funny but over time begins to grate when people realize it’s simply a learned method of hiding your true self because you don’t feel like you’ll be accepted.

 

So kudos to Patty Jenkins for being honest, confident, and telling a story that isn’t afraid of being labeled as “cheesy”.  In doing so, she’s supercharged a franchise that I think many people were skeptical of, and she has hopefully set an example that will show studios that genre films can be popular without deflating their own tension or becoming parodies of themselves.

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