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Films, They Are a-Changin’: From Fun Escapes to Complex Experiences

Since the inception of the moving picture, films have always had their share of thought-provoking material. But for the most part they used to be a major form of escapism. People would take their friends and families to the cinema after a hard week’s work and get lost in a couple of hours of fun adventure or comedy or even just the comfort of seeing the forces of good triumph over those of evil. From Back to the Future to Star Wars (The Empire Strikes Back being the exception) to Superman, the hero’s journey has been displayed on the silver screen for decades, providing a feel-good time for audiences everywhere. Romantic comedies and kid friendly animated films also had their place in movie lovers’ hearts, and they still do. But there has been a recent trend of films straying farther and farther from the well-worn formulas that encompass people’s comfort zones.

That’s not to say movies no longer contain traditional narrative arcs. There is still plenty of comfort food to be found in theaters and at home. Pixar and DreamWorks are still churning out family entertainment with happy endings. But one need look no further than the recently released Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse to find evidence of mainstream animation moving further into dark and complex territory.

Speaking of Marvel, most of the MCU is made up of films that generally follow the hero’s journey to a satisfying conclusion of the good guys taking down the bad guys before the credits (and post-credit scenes) roll. The Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Iron Man, and Black Panther series have all provided pure escapism. Yet Avengers: Infinity War and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness sure did dish out darker endings and teary-eyed farewells to beloved characters. But it is outside of these established IPs that brave new filmmakers are stepping completely away from the norms of narrative arcs to give audiences something new, whether they like it or not.

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Weird Barbie. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

One treasured IP that has finally made its way to live-action cinema is Barbie. While enormously popular and successful, the film is definitely not what anyone thought it would be before its release. Most expected something akin to The Lego Movie, taking a beloved retro children’s toy and turning it into a wholesome adventure with a happy ending … not that The Lego Movie didn’t contain plenty of original thinking and high concepts. However, Barbie completely eschewed normal formulaic storytelling for something that left a lot of theatergoers scratching their heads in wonderment at what they just saw.

The movie starts out on a very strange note with little girls smashing their traditional baby dolls to bits after a giant Barbie materializes and winks at them. Barbie Land itself may be one of the most woke places in cinematic history, containing not just Margot Robbie’s “stereotypical” Barbie, but a whole world of different Barbies who are doctors, lawyers, scientists, and presidents, not to mention members of the LGBTIQA+. All problems enforcing feminism and equal rights have been solved in this magical place, although it may be argued that the Kens and Allans are somewhat subjugated and generally portrayed as morons.

It is when stereotypical Barbie starts having thoughts about dying and gains cellulite and flat feet that things really start to go off the rails. Barbie and Ken (Ryan Gosling) travel to the real world to help the little girl who is having all the dark thoughts that are affecting Barbie. However, it turns out to be the girl’s mother, Gloria (America Ferrera), who’s having suicidal ideation and trouble coping with life. These are all very heavy themes to be laid out in a movie geared toward attracting a large attendance of children.

It also doesn’t help that “Weird” Barbie (Kate McKinnon) calls Ken a “protein pop” and says she’d like to “see what kind of nude blob he’s packing under his jeans,” nor that Will Ferrell’s CEO of Mattel calls the building phallic. In the end, this movie isn’t really for children at all, as the little girl played by Ariana Greenblatt, who was so charming in Love and Monsters and perhaps the only saving grace of 65, is quickly reduced to a mostly mute non-character while her mom has all the fun.

The rest of the movie mostly involves saving Barbie Land from a Ken coup and restoring the Barbies to power. Stereotypical Barbie chooses to go back to the human world with Gloria and Sasha, where she ends the story by going to her first gynecological visit. If you haven’t seen the film and this all sounds batshit crazy, it’s because it is. However, it somehow works, providing a very entertaining experience, perhaps because everything that happens is so unexpected. Would a more traditional storyline have served Barbie as well? It seems the world will never know.

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Perhaps no movie subverts the traditional hero’s journey more than 2019’s Joker. Joaquin Phoenix gives an incredible performance as the mentally disturbed Batman villain with nary a Batman in sight (excluding the brief appearance of Bruce Wayne as a child). Exploring the character’s tragic backstory and psychology opens up a fascinating portrait of what makes such a villain act as one does. The movie is melancholy from beginning to end, with one grim scene giving way to another as the Joker transforms into a homicidal lunatic with a legion of followers at his disposal. It’s only during his psychotic fantasies that anything resembling wholesome or happy experiences occur. This is no fun day at the movies and provides no escapism except into much darker places than the viewer is (hopefully!) accustomed to.

Why was Joker so successful, to the point of spawning an upcoming sequel? Perhaps audiences are growing tired of seeing the hero’s journey and becoming more interested in what makes a villain tick. The relatively recent outpouring of love for the character of Harley Quinn and her fellow Suicide Squad members would certainly indicate as much. The headliner of three feature films (in which Margot Robbie once again wows audiences) as well as her own wildly popular R-rated animated series, Harley Quinn perfectly illustrates modern viewers’ love of the dark side of the superhero/supervillain dynamic, even if she does go somewhat light-side in her adventures.

Other recent films that have explored the minds and actions of the wicked are The Menu, starring Ralph Fiennes as a world-famous chef whose love of cooking has soured to the point of wanting to kill his patrons, A24’s The Zone of Interest, which details Nazi Commandant Rudolf Höss’ life overseeing Auschwitz from his home next door, and The Green Knight. The latter is the story of Gawain (played by Dev Patel) a knight who succeeds in winning the monstrous Green Knight’s axe by decapitating him, having vowed to receive an equal blow by the aforementioned antagonist a year later.

The Green Knight, in particular, stands out as something that would seem to be a formulaic telling of the hero’s journey, as the knight Gawain goes on many heroic adventures during his travels toward the Green Knight’s abode. He obtains magical items, encounters thieves and giants, and has dealings with a dead woman and a Lord of a castle. When he reaches the Green Knight, he flinches from the blow. It is only then that he (and the viewer) see that his life would turn quite tragic should he continue to draw breath. The movie ends with the Green Knight decapitating him in turn.

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High among the perks of moviegoing, once upon a time, was seeing all end well before the final credits, giving audiences that feeling of peace and satisfaction as they exited the theater. As mentioned, there are still plenty of those cinematic experiences available, but the amount of sad or horrifying or just plain stultifying endings is very much on the rise. Another A24 movie, Bodies Bodies Bodies serves as a good example of the latter.

A party game in which one guest plays the killer and the others the victims/sleuths ends in someone actually having his neck sliced open. The rest of the guests panic and kill their first suspect in cold blood. As each attendee accuses others of being the murderer or betraying one other in some other fashion, the bodies really start to pile up. It is only at the end of the film that a TikTok video is found showing that the first victim cut his own throat by accident while attempting a party trick. As such, there was no murderer and no need for further murders. This is what the audience is left with when the credits roll.

Netflix’s Leave the World Behind, an apocalyptic thriller starring Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as the Sandfords and Mahershala Ali and Myha’la as the Scotts, provides a similarly anticlimactic conclusion. The film plays out with two families sheltering in a Long Island house while the world seems to be coming apart through cyberattacks and environmental causes. It remains suspenseful throughout, with the viewer not knowing who to trust and what exactly is causing the cataclysmic events. The theory posited by Ali’s character towards the end is quite lackluster. The film ends with the Sandfords’ daughter, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie), finding a bunker where she is able to watch the final episode of Friends, the only thing she really seemed to care about throughout the proceedings.

Kevin Smith’s Askewniverness movies, which began with Clerks in 1994, have always provided a mostly humorous escape from the pressures of daily life, focusing on bodega clerks Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) and, of course, the lovable pot merchants, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith himself). However, after suffering from a heart attack in 2018, Smith wrote Clerks 3 to reflect some of his own trauma.

What resulted was a finale to the Clerks series that had protagonist Dante lose his pregnant wife, Becky (Rosario Dawson) in an automobile accident off-screen and both Randal and Dante suffering from heart attacks, the latter dying as a result at the end of the film. To say Clerks 3 is a downer isn’t strong enough. It takes one of Generation X’s favorite comedic franchises — one they grew up with — and ends it by killing Dante and his whole family. Still, it has a 63% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 93% audience score. So, even amongst a demographic that favors stoner movies and dick and fart jokes, a tragic ending can seemingly stick the landing in today’s age.

A final and truly encapsulating example of the change in tone and direction of films can be made with a comparison between Sony’s original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and the MCU’s Tom Holland Spider-Man films. Tobey Maguire graced Spider-Man’s fanbase with three movies starting in 2002 and ending in 2007 that provided a perfectly executed hero’s journey and three very happy endings. Of course, the third film is seen as something of a catastrophe (just look up the Spider-Man finger gun meme). However, it ended Tobey Maguire’s run as the wallcrawler on a high note.

By comparison, the MCU’s Spider-Man movies are wonderfully complex and Tom Holland’s take on the character is pitch-perfect. But 2017’s Homecoming ended with the destruction of Peter’s relationship with Liz due to her father, The Vulture (Michael Keaton) being sent to jail. 2019’s Far from Home ended with Spider-Man framed for Mysterio’s death and his identity as Peter Parker revealed to the public (although he did get the girl, so some happy points there).

Then there’s 2021’s No Way Home. It concludes with Dr. Strange having to erase everyone’s memory of who Peter is to save the multiverses from crashing, meaning that Peter is left completely alone in the world without his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) or his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) having any recollection of their time with him. He also doesn’t get into college and winds up moving into a shabby little apartment by himself. This is, of course, after his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is killed in front of him in the middle of the film. Still, it is one of the highest-rated movies in the MCU stable.

Spider-Man: No Way Home leaves us with a less-than-happy ending for Peter Parker. Marvel Entertainment

Thus, in essence, it seems that everyone from independent filmmakers to giant franchise-funding studios is evolving past the need for formulaic narratives and happy endings. Or they’re just plain sick of them. Either way, moviegoers are going right along with this flow, spending their hard-earned bucks on both happy tales and total bummers, as long as the writing is good and the story is compelling. In the end, it’s for the best that there is so much variety in storytelling these days, exploring topics, arcs, and characters that producers wouldn’t go anywhere near not too long ago. While it’s still great to escape to the theater to watch your favorite protagonists win the day or save the world, it’s equally entertaining to expand one’s mind and get lost in darker themes and even absurdity itself, giving theatergoers something to ponder and discuss with friends and family long thereafter.




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