Movies Hit Peak Fourth Wall, Audiences Aren’t Amused Anymore

How the latest Hollywood money-making scheme is losing steam fast, and what to do about it!

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The new Charlie’s Angels film is a game-changer — a statement that may sound confusing at first glance. The spy comedy is a mildly entertaining action flick that marries quips with social commentary. It’s yet another reboot with a #ladyboss veneer, which uses the movie’s new casting choices (i.e., a female Bosley and mysognistic villains) to have a meta-conversation about the sexism that existed in the earlier installments of the franchise.

The moral of the film is essentially: “Charlie’s Angels used to be sexist, and that was not okay!”

This type of commentary is not revelatory for being new, but because of how ubiquitous feminist meta-commentary has become in entertainment. Nearly every action tentpole is having this conversation, and Charlie’s Angels cheesy, almost outdated feminist critique of itself, signifies an oversaturation in the marketplace. We have reached a tipping point with meta-commentary, and while we might not realize it now, things are about to get a whole lot more literal.

The Meta Beginning

If we had to arbitrarily select a TV show where this age of metacommentary started, then it would probably be Netflix’s 2013 House of Cards reboot. The main character, Frank Underwood (played by alleged predator Kevin Spacey ), would break the fourth wall by turning to the camera to speak directly to the audience. This technique was considered refreshing and exhilarating at the time. As reviewer David Zurawikd wrote in the Baltimore Sun:

“…it is Spacey who ultimately makes the strategy on breaking the fourth wall such a success, seducing viewers with his charm, political savvy and easygoing candor — all the while enlisting them as co-conspirators in his dark designs for retribution before they know what happened.”

It was not that fourth-wall-breaking itself was new. Since Shakespeare, performers had been making asides to the audience about their internal motivations. Decades before House of Cards, Matthew Broderick dazzled moviegoers in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, as a charismatic student that gave audience members life advice as he played hookey.

The element that made Kevin Spacey appealing was that his show purported to be about how power worked. By talking to audience members directly, he was implicitly promising to share that knowledge. The audience was a part of a meta-textual conversation concerning the nature of power, and it was a conversation that coincided perfectly with the rise of the Internet.

In a broader sense, this same type of relationship was enfolding with vloggers on sites such as YouTube, Vine (RIP), Facebook, and more. Vlogs were often about the vlogger establishing a personable relationship with the viewer that was one-sided (sometimes referred to as a “parasocial relationship”). Vloggers often broke the fourth wall, if such a veneer existed at all, to remind viewers that they were a part of the conversation. As YouTuber Lindsey Ellis commented in her 2018 video YouTube: Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!):

“A part of the platform of YouTube, what some would call influencer culture, is that it’s important for creators that their audience think they know you…And when the deception becomes clear, fans can get angry. But lucky for me, I don’t have to worry about you guys.”

Ellis here is both commenting on this one-sided relationship while also reassuring her audience that they are different. That they “get it.”

Soon everyone was having a Kevin Spacey-esque conversation with their viewers. The Internet incentivized direct, one-sided conversations that made consumers think they were participating, even if they weren’t: brands developed personalities, ad campaigns pretended to be our friends, and movies structured themselves to be in on the joke.

“Our shareholders have been patient, but let’s be honest, no one is impressed by a dinosaur anymore.”

That’s a line from a very early scene in the 2015 film Jurassic World. On a textual level, it’s about how revivifying dinosaurs is no longer an exciting technology, but this line is really for the viewer. Dinosaurs on the silver screen are what’s no longer a novelty, and the film is trying to tell us that the creators understand this — that they “are with it.”

From Maui in 2016’s Moana (Dwayne Johnson) making a joke about Disney princesses to the 2014 Lego Movie addressing nerd culture in a fourth-wall-breaking twist, it cannot be overstated how common this type of humor has become in cinema. These types of jokes are perhaps best known in the 2016 superhero movie Deadpool where the titular hero’s superpower is literally breaking the fourth wall. Every punchline in that film is about disregarding the in-universe reality altogether to make jokes about the real world. As Ryan Reynold’s Deadpool remarked in one scene:

DEADPOOL: Fourth wall break inside of a fourth wall break? That’s like… 16 walls!

This type of humor has not gone away, but it quickly became repetitive to many viewers. If a movie was self-aware enough about its perceived flaws to make a joke about them, then why not just addressed those flaws in the first place? The 2018 sequel to Deadpool, for example, was heavily criticized for being too meta. In the words of Glen Weldon in NPR:

“Whenever Deadpool 2 tosses out one of its multitudinous references, causing you to recognize something onscreen that is occurring outside of its familiar context, a certain set of neurons fire in your brain…Obviously the reflexive laughter of mere recognition can’t compare to the earned laughter of actual comedy, but it is a kind of laughter, after all.”

A backlash started to form in reaction to this type of filmmaking. Audiences still loved meta-commentary, but if media makers wanted to continue using this technique, they had to provide more substance. This position applied especially to existing properties such as reboots and continuations, which could no longer coast on nostalgia alone. They suddenly needed to rationalize their existence on a metatextual level if they wanted to get butts in seats.

The lowest hanging fruit was #ladyboss feminism.

Enter The Meta Feminist Analysis

It’s always been challenging to get people to return to a franchise. This fact is especially true when that franchise has historically underperformed in the past or has an extremely dated premise. The Ocean’s Eleven franchise, for example, was about a group of mysognistic men robbing a casino to obtain money to indulge in their various whims. In the early aughts, it was a voyeuristic, male power fantasy, but in a post #metoo world cognizant of wealth inequity, it’s starting to be viewed in a less charitable light. As one viewer commented to Buzzfeed:

Ocean’s Eleven used to be one of my favourites until I rewatched it recently. Julia Roberts’ character Tess is this beautiful, refined woman who seems fiery but actually is nothing more than a prize between two men, with no agency of her own.”

If you changed the gender dynamics of the film, however, as was done in 2018’s Ocean’s Eight, the premise suddenly becomes a lot more progressive without having to change the narrative structure. You can recast your leads as women, and keep everything else intact. Ocean’s Eight is still about criminals robbing powerful institutions to enrich themselves; it’s just that badass women are doing the robbing this time around. Your main characters can continue to indulge in this fantasy in a way that white men cannot because its a story that’s historically been denied to women. In the words of Dominic Griffin in Spectrum Culture:

“On the heels of the #MeToo movement and the fight for gender parity becoming more vocal within the industry, the marketplace is salivating for a project that is at once smart counterprogramming to the summer slate of superhero films as well as a much-needed win for women at large. The prestige heist film is the perfect vehicle to stage such a spectacle of performative comeuppance.”

This is #ladyboss feminism — narratives that focus on a small group of women “getting theirs” in an unjust system. There is nothing — N-O-T-H-I-N-G — wrong with these narratives. The #metoo movement, however, created an opening for a veritable gold rush of films with female-centric, usually white, leads with an extra-helping of meta-commentary.

And like with every gold rush, eventually the mines run dry.

From roughly 2016’s Ghostbusters to now, a string of movies was released that centered female leads on stories that were traditionally male (e.g. Ghostbusters (2016), Wonder Woman (2017), Captain Marvel (2019), Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), The Hustle (2019), and now, Charlie’s Angels (2019)). These films not only breathed life into old franchises, but they allowed filmmakers to comment on the sexism that existed before them. In doing so, we entered a meta-conversation on these franchises sexist pasts, and implicitly, their futures.

Captain Marvel, for example, was the first film to have a female lead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This superhero blockbuster signaled a shift in the male-centric MCU, and it’s quite meta. There is a scene that verges on breaking the fourth wall, where Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) insists on the need for people, but implicitly women, to keep fighting injustice. This montage consists of every time Captain Marvel has fallen and had to get back up. It’s a “lean-in-esque” call for women not to give in to the forces that have constrained them, and implicitly that includes the men behind the MCU who have so far excluded women from the franchise.

The examples of this sort of commentary are numerous in recent years. The much-maligned Ghostbuster’s continuation spoofs the original “Who You Gonna Call” theme song with the line “Who’s she gonna call?” The Terminator: Dark Fate installment has an entire plot about how women are more valuable than the men they carry inside their wombs. From recasting Belle in Beauty and The Beast (2017) as an inventor to a compelling metaphorical rape-revenge story in Maleficient (2014), nearly every recent Disney reboot has leaned heavily on the use of #ladyboss feminism.

It should be noted that for a time, this strategy made bank. The Ghostbuster’s reboot grossed a net of $144 million worldwide, prompting Sony to greenlight a sequel pending in 2020. Ocean’s 8 grossed $140.2 million. Captain Marvel grossed $1.128 billion. This trend has made many filmmakers a lot of money, and we can now put to rest the erroneous notion that female leads can’t make enriching and profitable cinema.

Billions of dollars say they can.

With this normalization, however, comes an understandable, reassuring complacency. There is no longer a need to rush out to “defend” every female reboot of a major series. This trend, while great sociological-speaking, means that many #ladyboss films are no longer receiving the support they once did in the box office: Terminator: Dark Fate bombed, and The Hustle performed below expectations.

Charlie’s Angels comes at the end of this wave. It’s a film that is also having a conversation about sexism in the previous installments of the franchise. This film opens with angel Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) in a debate with money launderer Jonny Smith (Chris Pang) about how his views on women are antiquated. It’s a comment that is a direct reference to the franchise’s own sexist history.

Although the original series had three female leads (Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, and Farrah Fawcett), they were led by the male Charlie and Bosley, respectively. This new continuation metaphorically rewrites that history for the better. The 2019 film has the Bosley and Charlie characters recast as titles within the Townsend spy organization, which is now primarily led by women.

Unfortunately, this feminist commentary has not generated the success that past meta-products have successfully banked on to revamp old franchises. Charlie’s Angels bombed at the Box office. In the words of Rebecca Rubin in Variety:

“Elizabeth Banks served as the series’ first female filmmaker, something the studio heavily leaned into while promoting the film. But despite a feminist twist on the action comedy, one that sees the Angels going global to halt the spread of a dangerous new technology, audiences weren’t sold on the need for another installment.”

The #ladyboss era, and possibly the meta-age in general, is coming to a close.

A Meta Conclusion

We’ve been having a conversation with ourselves for over a decade about stories themselves. Many of our most popular films and television shows are effectively deconstructions of once-popular narratives. As Dan Neilan wrote in the AV Club:

“Comparing mid-2000s fare like the Ice Age franchise or the first Iron Man with more recent films like the Lego Movie or Deadpool makes it easy to see the cultural shift towards the meta. Characters in the latter films seem hyper-aware of not only the fact that they’re in a movie but a very specific kind of movie that has specific expectations around it. This awareness allows them to undercut said expectations to an almost incessant degree.”

This trend started with fourth-wall-breaking before shifting to self-aware humor and then to self-aware feminist commentary. This latter element was and is still a good conversation to have with viewers. We should continue to encourage films to apply a feminist analysis to their stories, but it probably won’t be a magical cure-all for ticket sales.

We have reached a point of saturation where female empowerment alone is a popular enough idea to no longer be a selling point — it is expected. If a movie wants to get people to consume their content, then they need to think more carefully about how they will craft their future installments. It’s not enough anymore to place a female lead in a traditionally masculine story and call it a day, and if we are honest with ourselves, it never was.

Some filmmakers will undoubtedly expand this age of meta-commentary to include currently neglected demographics. Despite some wonderfully meta films handling racial and class issues (e.g., Get Out, Sorry To Bother You, The Last Black Man In San Francisco, Snow Piercer, Parasite, etc.), these are areas that have not received the same sort of saturation as #ladyboss films. The age of meta-commentary may be expanded a couple of years by filmmakers shifting the greater emphasis on these types of stories.

At some point, though, it has to end.

Meta-commentary is not inherently wrong, but it does get old when its all viewers are consuming. There are only so many times viewers get enjoyment at deconstructing tropes before they want us to start telling new stories that break the old paradigms, and not just critique them. It’s terrific that old power structures are now finally being criticized for their sexist, racist, and classist underpinnings, but eventually, you have to look to the future, not just the pop culture past and present.

My guess is that we are entering a new era. Charlie’s Angels failure is the canary in the coal mine, telling us its time to strike a different narrative vein.

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I write about pop culture, politics, and every in between.

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