The Fourth Wall Has Been Holding Superhero Movies Back

By  · Published on February 6th, 2017

LEGO Batman and Deadpool make a case for self-referentiality.

Learning lessons from the Writers Guild of America-, Golden Globe-, and Producers Guild of America-nominated Deadpool and its PG progeny The LEGO Batman Movie, it seems the most effectively comic (and I use that word intentionally) superhero movies are those that don’t take the film medium that seriously. Despite what ironic would-be cinesnobs may say, the 1966’s Batman: The Movie succeeds in being delightful because of its tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of cinematic and comic form.

Comics (moreso in Golden and Silver Age comics than modern offerings, though many of these elements still hold) love loose ends, address the reader directly, and sprinkle gags onto their kitchen-sink plots. We love comic book adaptations that follow suit.

Think of the cheers at every single Stan Lee cameo or the way that comic characters have a habit of picking up comic books or watching cartoons, not to mention every time a marketing campaign has showed a character bursting from the page into the “real world.”

The surprising success of Guardians of the Galaxy was helped by its popular marketing campaign that heavily emphasized its use of pop music that transcended “Hooked on a Feeling” from diegetic (Chris Pratt’s Walkman) to the non-diegetic (the bombastic trailer music superhero fans were expecting). When Googling “Hooked on a Feeling,” the result “Hooked on a Feeling Guardians of the Galaxy” comes up before the the artist name. Sorry, Blue Swede. Suicide Squad tried to follow suit with its trailer, chopping up the ironically appropriate “Bohemian Rhapsody” for its preview yet including none of that self-referentiality in the film itself.

Last year Deadpool, a huge left-field box office hit like Guardians and – to branch a bit here to LEGO Batman’s tonal/creative successor – The LEGO Movie, didn’t just use this trick (although it did implement a lot more DMX than would be expected), but dismantled the movie structure its audience had become increasingly familiar with over the last decade of Marvel box office reign. Now, with LEGO Batman, it seems like leaning into the backlash towards over-serious superhero fare is the way to financial and popular success. Perhaps these tonal preferences are cyclical and determined by the cultural state their viewers live in, but it’s hard to avoid the argument for more gleefully anarchic comic adaptations.

The callbacks and references within the Avengers films have a special superpower of their own: they can smuggle silly subversiveness in extremely popular films with broad, wide-reaching plots.

What these two recent examples of comic book movies show is that the prepackaged studio format of current tentpole films give filmmakers room to experiment without losing any audience while those same comic quirks can translate well on screen. Adaptation directors and executives are discovering what comic fans have known for decades – that comics should touch the real world and if possible, us.

Whether Deadpool rewrites the opening credits to thank the writers as the real heroes or if Lego Batman’s asphalt grumble deflates gaudy production logos, it’s the kind of rebellion to which comic audiences respond. Regardless of whether or not they should be exposed to Deadpool’s rampant dildo talk, even kids know the movie formula well enough to be in on the jokes.

The tiny bit of shoptalk acknowledges the tectonic shift of people that care about film production news since everything went online. People know about moviemaking like only industry folks used to. That allows for the kind of self-reference that comics freely use with their fans because writers know they understand the process and the formulae. There’s a freedom of expression when you know your audience understands (on some level) the trappings of your genre and/or medium. Lego Batman’s description of a black screen being a sign of an important and serious film could easily be Deadpool’s speech bubble proclaiming that all important and serious comics are called “graphic novels.”

With this freedom comes a mandate to avoid simple formula. After conditioning an audience to expect the same thing over and over, the most effective thing is to subvert it. When the parodies die down, go back to earnestness to remind people of the format’s possibilities, and then the cycle can continue.

LEGO Batman and even, to some extent, Deadpool aren’t entirely parodic fourth-wall-breaking middle fingers. Their plots still beat with the same pulse as the many heroic journeys that came before them and their ultimate conflicts still end in victory and growth (though the LEGOs certainly do it better of the two).

And that’s good.

We don’t want a MAD Magazine type of superhero riff where we feel embarrassed for liking the subject in the first place, but a movie that won’t play like a parody of itself either. We want a self-aware movie that’s not set on being “important.” A movie that realizes the strength of comic book adaptations is their hard-earned ability to reach outside of movies, an ability that they gained by somehow convincing the world that they were serious in the first place.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).