4th Walls and Where to Build Them – A Defence of Self-Awareness


(Illustration by Verity Pease)

Remember Deadpool?  Of course you do.  After years of development hell, and even a botched attempt in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 2016’s Deadpool saw the fan favourite superhero finally translated to the big screen.  The film exploded in popularity, not only because it was cleverly written and made with such passion but due to its self-awareness of how juvenile and absurd it was, something that rang true about the source material. Like all popular media however there was a faction of the internet outraged at the film, proclaiming that its overreliance on self-deprecating humour and fourth wall jokes made it childish and were an attempt to disguise its flaws by poking fun at them, even if it was faithful to the comics.

Regardless of your stance on the movie this does bring up the concept of self-aware films and whether being self-aware really holds any water.  Some argue that if a film’s inept handling of story or characters becomes blatantly obvious to the eye then the self-aware argument is thrown up to try and make the film seem more credible, something which has previously come up in the cinema-verse.  Raja Gosnell is an appalling filmmaker, having helmed disasters like the migraine-inducing Smurfs movies, but his live-action version of Scooby-Doo has its defenders who claim that the film is a self-aware satire of the cartoon.  One can see where that claim is coming from but due to the juvenile pandering and mean-spirited handling of the source material this argument isn’t enough to make the film entertaining for many viewers.  Others include The Rocky and Bullwinkle movie, Last Action Hero and Hail Caesar, all of which people still debate to this day whether their self-awareness was actually clever and funny or a mere shroud to try and cover up what didn’t work about them.

While each of the films listed have varying degrees of success and failure (really it all comes down to opinion) just because a film is self-aware doesn’t mean it’s being lazy or trying to cover up its flaws.  Even before Deadpool came about there were plenty of solid films that were ludicrously self-aware, whether they were aware that they were movies or aware of how redundant or preposterous they were.  The Jump Street films are ideal examples with Nick Offerman’s character from the first instalment claiming that the mission Schmidt and Jenko get involved with (and subsequently the entire film) is “rehashing shit from the 80s because [they’re] out of original ideas.”  22 Jump Street took this even further by ridiculing the fact that it was essentially a repeat of the first film and having its end credits be dedicated to proposed sequels/rehashes.  Their self-awareness acts in a satirical manner which works because even if you don’t know what they’re satirising the films are still both hilarious and engaging, while others like Scooby-Doo are awkward in contrast.

This satirical self-awareness permeates other recent comedies, such as The Cabin in the Woods, Shaun of the Dead and, to a lesser extent, This is the End or Kick-Ass.  Yet self-awareness doesn’t have to apply solely to comedies and doesn’t have to be satirical.  Sometimes a film just embracing what it is can be enough to make it entertaining.  The Fast and Furious movies used to be quite serious and weren’t well received because of that.  However from Fast Five onwards the series began to acknowledge how over the top its action was, aiming for gargantuan stunts that relished in how ridiculous they were. As a result, the series’ latter films became much more fun to sit through now that they’d accepted their place as popcorn entertainment.

These films all show that self-awareness can be one of your greatest assets if utilised correctly.  It works well for comedies and action but only if paired with the right tone.  Mad Max: Fury Road was a great action film, not simply due to how insane it was but also because of its serious overtones.  If it had suddenly started becoming self-aware it would’ve lost a lot of its integrity.  The Dark Knight and Deadpool are both technically superhero films but Deadpool’s source material means it’s perfect for self-aware humour whereas Dark Knight is more of a crime drama and therefore wouldn’t have worked if The Joker had suddenly started wisecracking about the film’s budget.

Considering all of the above, self-aware films aren’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea and the gimmick isn’t always used appropriately but it’s fun to put on something ridiculous to counterbalance intricate entertainment every once in a while.  If you want to make a film that revels in being aware of its own identity or shortcomings then by all means go for it.  Just make sure you have a damn good writer who knows what they’re doing.

[Calum Cooper] 

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