“It’s A Superhero Movie” is Not An Excuse for Bad Storytelling
Wonder Woman 1984 is a disappointment of a movie filled with silly contrivances and lazy storytelling. What can we learn from it?
Let me start off by saying this is not a formal review of the movie per se. There are plenty of other resources to read or watch that will scratch your review itch.
What I want to do with this post is address one particular excuse I see that keeps popping up in response to the deluge of criticism this movie has received. That excuse being: “It’s a superhero movie, [insert your favorite excused short-falling].”
- It’s supposed to be over the top
- It’s supposed to be silly and unbelievable
- It’s supposed to be campy
- We don’t have to understand her powers
I understand why people use these excuses. Because of the reputation that comic books have, people believe that the movie versions of them should also be silly, campy, contrived, etc. Well, my answer to that is that even the best comic books are also great stories in and of themselves (The Watchmen and The Sandman immediately come to mind). But most importantly, there never is an excuse for bad storytelling.
You can have a fun and campy movie with decent storytelling, and it can still bring you along for the ride. Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok is a perfect example. That movie is chock full of fun and camp. (Sometimes, admittedly, a tad too much.) And it has some story problems. But on the whole, the movie adheres to the rules that have been established in the Marvel Universe and the character motivations all make sense and are not as contrived. It also takes place on a planet and involves worlds filled with fantastical creatures and beings.
Wonder Woman attempts to merge the fantastical with reality. There’s nothing wrong with that—except when the aspects of reality start becoming silly (i.e. people who do and say things that normally a person wouldn’t do and say.)
The biggest issues people had with the movie were related to examples of lazy storytelling. These are poor to bad aspects of a story where it appears the creators have used little to no creativity or effort to solve the story problem.
Let’s look at a five examples of lazy storytelling (not all of which were in WW84), but these are all ones you’ve seen at one point or another. There will be some minor spoilers for WW84 in this post. But trust me, this story is so bad, there’s I could spoil that would detract from this film.
1. Breaking the rules (or having no rules)
In every world you create, that world should have rules. If you don’t establish any rules, or worse, establish some, then break them, it’s annoying to the audience and is just lazy. One of the biggest issues I had with WW84 is that end of the movie she exhibits a particular ability that it has never heretofore been established. I don’t mind if a superhero has certain abilities, but if they’ve never had that ability before, and all of a sudden they have it, you damn well better give me a good explanation. There was none given in WW84.
Which leads me to the next major example of lazy storytelling.
Contrivances are when something far-fetched, ridiculous, or highly unrealistic happens in your story, without any well-established rhyme or reason, other than because the plot needs it to happen. For example, C3P0 in Rise of Skywalker not being able to utter the language of the Sith, allowing him to decipher the map dagger—so why the hell would he be programmed with that ability in the first place? It’s there because the plot needed it to be that way. (But don’t get me started on “Rise of Skywalker. I’m exhausted complaining about it.)
One minor spoiler for WW84 is how Diana makes her invisible jet. She just has this cool trick she learned once where she made a cup disappear. Now, she’s going to use it on a whole freaking jet plane? She cast spells now?
Another contrivance is the fact that her love interest, Steve Trevor (played by Chris Pine) is able to fly one of the most advanced pieces of machinery in any era, despite the face that the last plane he flew was from World War 1.
Yet another major contrivance in the film is that the main villain turns himself into a “wishing stone” and needs to get people make wishes on him. This thereby grants him some level of power over them. The way he gets people to “use” him, he says, “Don’t you wish you had such, and such…” and they answer “Yes, of course I wish that.” Really dude? That’s your master plan. Oh, and he needs people to “touch” him for this power to work. So his master plan is to send out a broadcast to the world and the particles from the broadcast are supposedly “touching” the viewers. (Eye roll. Slap palm to forehead.)
Speaking of wishes…
3. Wishes suck!
Whenever you have a story based on someone having the power to grant wishes, you’re on shaky ground of very lazy storytelling. If you establish some kind of rules in your world, it’s not so bad. Something like in Aladdin, where you can’t wish for more wishes, or make someone fall in love with you, etc.) In this case, this wishing power seems all powerful (turning Kristen Wiig’s character into a bad reject from the Cats movie, and building walls out of nowhere. But for some reason, when the wishing power brings Steve Trevor back to life, it has to be in the body of another man? And let’s not get into the fact that Diana, who is supposed to be a higher being with boundless empathy, has zero issue with commandeering this other man’s body just to be with her lover. Going so far as to put him in danger of being shot and blown up. And not once is the issue ever raised.
Another issue with wishes is that when someone is that powerful, you remove all tension from the story. That’s one of the challenges with characters like Superman and Marvel’s Captain Marvel. These heroe’s are so powerful, you need to come up with creative ways to counteract their power. With Superman it’s Kryptonite or threatening Lois Lane. With Captain Marvel, it’s sending her out into the universe to help ostensibly dozens of other worlds in danger who don’t have Avengers.
This idea of tension caused by the relative ability or inability to defeat or overcome the challenges at hand all relate to the next issue on the docket.
4. No stakes
If there are no stakes in the proverbial game, the audience can’t get invested. WW84 does not suffer from this particular storytelling issue. But the audience needs to get invested in your story. There needs to be a sense that something big and important is at stake. Even though I said I was exhausted with Rise of Skywalker, let me return to that god-awful movie.
Without getting too much into it, it’s very hard to get too invested in anything the characters do, because the writers always found ways to bring anyone killed back to life.
- Chewie was thought to be killed. Nope. He was on a different transport.
- Kylo Re was stabbed. Rey brings him back to life.
- Luke’s lightsaber was destroyed. It is “magically” bright back into existence.
- C3P0’s memory has to be dumped so that he can read the aforementioned Sith dagger; R2D2 can just download him again.
- And the grand daddy of them all (pun intended), the Emperor is brought back as the main baddie, despite the fact that he was blown up in a reactor at the end of Return of the Jedi, and then blown up AGAIN when the Death Star II was blow up.
The audience needs to feel that there’s a real chance that the heroe’s of the story are in danger; and a sense of real loss needs to be felt when a hero.
5. Superfluous Exposition
There’s a common saying in the film world: “Don’t tell it. Show it.” It’s a hallmark of lazy storytelling to utilize some form of verbal exposition to communicate some aspect of a story, as opposed to letting the audience figure it out on their own based on the writing and direction. I don’t necessarily think this is an issue that WW84 suffered from, but it’s an aspect of lazy storytelling worth addressing.
Sometimes exposition is needed. A scientist in a sci-fi flick has to explain some over complicated aspect of astrophysics in order for the audience to get what’s going on. A doctor in a medical drama explains a surgical procedure for the same reason. These forms of exposition make sense and fit well in a story. The kind that doesn’t work as well is when a character has to explain the feelings of another character instead of letting the audience figure it out.
Part of what makes bad verbal exposition is when one character explains something to another character who should already know. There’s a scene in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar where a character explains worm holes to Mathew McCaunaghey’s character. A man who ostensibly should already know this. It’s not that the exposition in and of itself is bad. It’s the way it’s presented. It’s obvious the only reason is exists is to help the audience understand. But in the context of the story, it’s kinda dumb.
Another popular form of verbal exposition is from a story narrator. It could be a character in the story telling the audience what is happening, as if reflecting back on an event in the past. Think of the opening of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, when Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel gives the backstory of the rings of power and the fall of Sauron.
I think this is a perfectly fine example for one main reason: the whole movie is somewhat of a fairytale, so having the original recited to us feels like someone reading a book.
At the end of the day, as a writer who needs to convey information to your audience, ask the question, “How can I communicate this info without having someone actually say it?” The more times you can do that, the better you will be.
6. Poor Character Development
Last, and certainly not least, is poor character development. This is when a character is not fully flushed out. It can manifest itself in any number of ways:
- Their motivations aren’t fully explored
- We don’t get to really know them
- Their interactions with other characters (particularly other main characters with whom they have a relationship), seem contrived or shallow
Poor character development is one of the most egregious forms of lazy storytelling because it’s our connection to characters that makes us even care about the story we’re watching or reading in the first place.
Let’s go back to our good ol’ trusty “friend,” the Star Wars sequel trilogy of episodes 7, 8, and 9. One of the worst developed characters in that 3-movie arc is Finn, played by British actor John Boyega. Here we have an ex-Stormtrooper who refuses to take orders, leaves the First Order, and ventures out to become a free man. That is the foundation for an amazing story and background that could play out is so many ways.
But we never, ever learn anything really deep about him. From The Force Awakens (which I actually like, despite its flaws), to The Last Jedi (hated it!), to The Rise of Skywalker (truly and deeply LOATHE IT), all we learn about Finn is that he’s really, really, really, into yelling “Rey!”
It’s no wonder Boyega has mixed fillings about his time in the Star Wars franchise.
Bad or no character development is lazy storytelling. If there is just one thing on this list you should focus on, is making well-developed characters with whom your audience can connect. If you do that, many of the other issues will solve themselves.
Now go forth and write great stories!