So, I was listening to the Wonder Woman episode of The Story Toolkit podcast, and I have to say it was a major eye opener. The episode itself is about the Wonder Woman movie, and during the show the host Bassim al-Wakil laid out something I had no idea about, but which makes absolute perfect sense.
You see, I found the Wonder Woman movie a mess in terms of storytelling, theme and kind’ve in general, and Bassim not only helped to explain exactly why, but he also taught me something about how Hollywood is now making films I didn’t know. In particular, Bassim outlined that the way they’re making these big tentpole movies has changed, largely due to the heavy levels of effects involved and the limited time they have to make them.
In short, since they only have a year to make these films, what they’re doing is coming up with a rough outline for the film, figuring out what the big setpiece sequences are going to be, and then beginning work on those before the script is actually completed! Why is this important? Well, he used Wonder Woman as a good example.
He pointed out that the big setpiece action sequences have little to no dialog in them, and then none of what is in them refers to anything outside that particular setpiece sequence. In other words, in a scene like Wonder Woman crossing no man’s land, the whole story of that sequence is all within that sequence and doesn’t actually connect to anything else in the film. This is because, for all intents and purposes, it is a little self-contained mini-movie within the larger film, and the same for the other big action sequences. It HAS to be this way, because they didn’t know what the final script it would be put into would look like.
Then, he noted that the scenes in between the big event scenes are all packed to the gills with exposition. Like, solid wall-to-wall characters filling in the story, because that time spent in the effects scenes is basically wasted screen time that is only connected to the main story through characters. They are attempting to tell the story of the movie during the cracks between the big event effects scenes, which makes it awkward and forced.
For those of the video game generation, think of the big effects scenes as the parts would be playing, and the exposition scenes as the pre-rendered cut scenes and you’ll have the right idea. The movie is literally a series of action scenes with the story bits just there to connect them all together.
So what? You might ask. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that in a good and well told story, everything in the movie from the scenes, to the dialog, to the actions, to the costumes and sets and everything else is there for the purpose of telling and enhancing that story. There is a clear theme being developed, and subtext to the story that the audience reacts to, and which helps to build a connection between the characters and audience.
Think of it as the difference between Team A, professional basketball team who train and play together, and Team B, a bunch of professional players from different teams stuck together for the purposes of the game. While Team B might have some amazing players, it will never be as good as Team A because there won’t be any unity the way they play. Team A work as a unit, while Team B will always be individuals playing their own game and not coordinating with each other.
The current crop of big event Superhero movies (and effects movies in general it seems) are all Team B. Uneven collections of individual sequences that may or may not work well together, and which lack focus and coherence.
This really struck home when I thought about the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2– when it came out, I think it was my friend Jack who pointed out that you could literally take the major sequences of the film and stick them up on YouTube as individual videos and they’d work perfectly fine. Yes, there was a big story idea there surrounding them, but they worked fine by themselves, and didn’t have to be watched as part of a greater film for the most part. The end result was a flat and uneven movie that did have enjoyable parts, but which really didn’t work as coherent film built up around setups and payoffs within the story.
This is as opposed to Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol.1) which has a clear story being told from start to finish that for the most part links together and has a dramatic through-line you can follow. Likely because, unlike it’s sequel (or Wonder Woman) it had sufficient pre-production time to plan things out before it was produced.
This also explains why the earliest set photos and videos from the next Avengers film were all indoor alien sets and green screens with the major cast members there for filming. They were making all the major effects sequences first, and then would do the parts which fill in all the details later. And who knows if they had a script finished at the time they started it or not? Civil War clearly didn’t, looking back at it and how uneven that film is as well. (Spiderman wasn’t even part of the film when Civil War went into production, for example.)
Now, maybe I’m exaggerating how bad this is for film, after all, these are meant to be big bland blockbusters designed to wow audiences with their visuals more than their deep character arcs. However, I don’t consider this a good development because while it might not be why the last few Marvel movies have been so flat and uneven, it certainly isn’t helping matters. And now that I know what to look for, I think my enjoyment of these films is probably going to take another dip.
Thanks Bassim! 😛