The Fourth Wall: Deadpool and The Big Short
Stanley Murphy-Jones assesses the damage of Deadpool’s surprising, meteoric success on the cinematic fourth wall break and identifies a way forward.
We all want to feel like we understand films and it doesn’t get much better as an audience member than when you know you understood all the nods or winks the filmmakers has made to the camera. However, whilst breaking the fourth wall in film is often enjoyable, doing so also runs the risk of dragging the audience out of a story.
A turning point in recent cinematic history is seen in the success of Deadpool (2016). Originally a comic book character, Deadpool is notable for his awareness of his fictional existence and is often seen to use this knowledge to his advantage, an element which the filmmakers responsible for the character’s transition to the big screen were very eager to keep in. Somewhat surprisingly, this turned out to be an extremely successful decision as the film grossed almost $800 million worldwide and, since that point, the ‘action-comedy’ genre has been infested with attempts at ‘meta’ humour – with varying results.
I would maintain that it only gets through the final edit because of Deadpool’s success
It would be too harsh to suggest that none of these subsequent films are successful in playing with the fourth wall but, in my experience, it’s those films that use the device sparingly that work best. An isolated instance, a simple nod – something that people will react to with a smile and a short, amused exhalation – is far less detrimental to a film than any intricate attempt to weave audience interaction into a plot.
And there are some recent movies I believe deserve an honourable mention for their quieter usage of the break: The Big Short (2015), which brilliantly combines narrative with narration and audience address in order to explain key terminological details; and, in a completely different sense, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), which, as Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is running for his dear life from the monstrous Rathtar, recycles the music that plays as Indiana Jones similarly runs from a runaway boulder.
Not all films are so tactful, though, and a really rather clunky implementation of this overused element of filmmaking sits very fresh in my mind – that is, that of this year’s The Matrix Resurrections. To the end of self-referentiality, not only does the plot itself require an added level of contrivance, wherein Neo has created an in-universe game called ‘The Matrix’, but Lana Wachowski also seems entirely unable to resist digging at the studio that pressured the reboot – ‘our parent company Warner Bros said they would make this sequel with or without us’ – completely ripping you away from the story. It was pettiness which had somehow found its way into the final edit of the film and I would maintain that it only gets through that edit because of Deadpool’s success.
In any case, my dear reader, I would love to talk about all this for much longer but my editor gave me a word limit.