5 Annoying Ways Movies Break The Fourth Wall
People have been breaking the fourth wall in entertainment since ancient Greek theater, when the Athenian equivalent of Ryan Reynolds quipped about the Sophocles Cinematic Universe, I presume. When done well, it's a way to make the audience a part of the show. It's Deadpool saying, "Come, let us mock this genre together." When done poorly, though, it's just yanking us out of the proceedings so the writer can jerk off for a bit. That's what happens when they start doing things like ...
Dissing Earlier Entries In The Series
If a series has lasted longer than, well, two entries, the probability that one of those entries is gonna suck grows astronomically. If the series continues past the shitty one, subsequent filmmakers will feel a need to reassure fans that everything is cool, because they agree with you. So their movie will insert some clunky, fourth-wall-breaking moment where the characters joke about how bad the franchise once was.
Take the X-Men film series. By the time X-Men: Apocalypse came out, they had eight other movies of wildly varying quality. So one of the characters says, "We always know the third one is gonna be the worst!" when chatting about movies. They're winking at you about X-Men: The Last Stand, a film that's mostly memorable for the fact that at one point, the unstoppable Juggernaut is made to recite his own meme.
Now, the X-Men films have something of an obsession with shitting all over The Last Stand (Days Of Future Past erased it from the canon, and Dark Phoenix is an attempt by Last Stand 's own writer to fix what went wrong), but this particular line is from X-Men: Apocalypse, a film that's also terrible. It reminds me of how, in the wake of the 1998 American Godzilla, the Japanese Godzilla films would drop in lines about how it wasn't "the real Godzilla" every now and then, as if Japan is somehow magically immune to making hilariously bad movies about giant reptiles.
You can find a slightly more veiled version of this in Jurassic World, in which a Spinosaurus skeleton is demolished by the T-Rex in the end. See, in Jurassic Park III (a film that Jurassic World WISHES it was as good as), the Spinosaurus unceremoniously killed a T-Rex in a fight, and I guess fans were still mad about that? It's the dinosaur park equivalent of losing an argument but then totally winning that same argument when you have it by yourself in the shower later.
Likewise, the latest Halloween felt the need to include an entire expositional conversation among teenagers about how Michael Myers being related to Laurie Strode is just an urban legend, signaling that this wasn't like all of those bad sequels, where that relationship was a crucial plot point. Hey, you know the best way to ensure that the new Halloween isn't a bad sequel? Relaying your information to the audience in a way that isn't just three kids spouting backstory to each other on the street. That's really the problem in a nutshell: The moment you stop your movie to break the fourth wall just to dump on another movie, guess what? You've just made your own movie a little bit dumpier.
Having Biopic Subjects Talk Directly To The Camera
Admittedly, a good biopic is hard to pull off. Famous lives don't follow a traditional story structure, so it's all about how well you blend the truth and BS. That said, they're usually filled with tremendous actors looking for Oscar nominations, which makes it all the more baffling when the films turn their characters into Ferris Bueller. By that, I mean they talk to the camera as if history itself is some kind of inside joke between the audience and Leonardo DiCaprio.
In The Wolf Of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort is a despicable sleazeball who is not above getting buddy-buddy with people to use them, so maybe Martin Scorsese having DiCaprio constantly turn to the audience like he's trying to score some Quaaludes from a pal was a commentary on this? Or maybe it's because these highly stylized films would be so much better-suited as documentaries that they can't help but borrow certain elements from that form?
I'm thinking it's the latter, because this trope shows up everywhere, from I, Tonya to Get On Up to The Big Short. And it fits sometimes. Like in Hitchcock, which used it to reference the titular director opening and closing the episodes of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents show, and the fact that Hitchcock's own movie trailers were mostly him bullshitting glibly about bathrooms and birds. But not so much in, say, Into The Wild, which features the main character making a goofy face at the camera. That's an odd touch for a movie about a real person's excruciating death.
It feels the most ill-suited in something like Vice, which features 1) one of the biggest assholes in the annals of American politics being played by 2) Christian Bale, an actor so goddamn dedicated to his job that he doesn't need any fourth-wall-breaking gimmicks. This was the first dude who actually thought it was necessary to get in shape in order to play Batman. He's gonna bring it. Yet at the end of Vice, he turns to the camera and does a Frank Underwood.
It becomes a slap in the face, a "Sorry, Christian. I know you're an award-winning actor, but we need you to explain the themes to the camera, because maybe this whole movie doesn't work after all."
Having Characters Openly Criticize The Genre They're In
Sometimes, breaking the fourth wall comes down to insecurity. The filmmakers are seemingly ashamed to be working in that genre, and need to reassure you that the movie you're watching isn't just another karate vampire movie, dammit!
The best example is probably Watchmen, a film based on a comic where most of the appeal comes from just how much new ground it broke for both its genre and art form. But still, it's a lot like a traditional superhero story, and the movie has a lot in common with most superhero movies. So when the villain Ozymandias tries to quip, "I'm not a comic book villain!" it's at best some kind of meta-meta-commentary on how he totally is. Dude, you just engaged in a fight with two heroes over your scheme, the ramifications of which end up changing the world in a way that only comic book logic can. It's like when I tell people that I have good taste in movies before revealing that I have two different Blu-ray copies of Watchmen.
You might have seen this in horror movies, too, like Jeepers Creepers and Scream. In the case of the latter, the fourth wall is shattered numerous times by characters talking about how much the events are or are not like those of a horror film. The plot then proceeds to play out in a way that's about 10 percent more clever than the cookie cutters they're mocking.
Even Blade, the closest that mankind has ever come to producing a perfect work of art, has the title character say, "Forget what you've seen in the movies" when it comes to vampires, before going on to use sunlight and different kinds of piercing weapons to kill vampires. That's pretty much what they do in most other vampire movies. Well, unless he's referring to the fact that vampire flicks rarely include dope spin-kicks. Interview With A Vampire? Nosferatu? Let The Right One In? Not ONE spin-kick between them, and they're all worse for it.
Settling Some Real-Life Grudge
Fictional stories are a great way to tackle real-world problems -- unless, say, that problem is some petty beef between a creator and their critics. This is always terrible, because if the viewer is aware of the situation being referenced, then they get ripped out of the story. If they're unaware of it, then it's just confusing nonsense. All because a work decided to address some feud within the script, rather than the creator publicly challenging the critic to a steel cage match like an adult.
One of the most infamous recent examples is when the long-running Simpsons character Apu triggered a discussion on issues of stereotyping and representation of Indians. The writers of the show decided to have Lisa talk about the issue of problematic work and then say "What can you do?" while looking right at the camera. If you're not willing to actually address it, how is this better than saying nothing? And to a viewer unaware of the controversy, you just stopped your show dead for no goddamned reason.
I hate to join the hordes of people complaining about the declining quality of a show that's lasted for so long, but it's hard to watch it become the cranky adult it had mocked 25 years earlier.
Of course, they could've just done what some films have opted for and killed off a clumsily inserted critic character. After The Village was received with a resounding "Yeah, I guess," M. Night Shyamalan shoved a film critic into Lady In The Water. His purpose is to give the lead character bad advice and then get murdered. Oh, and he also gives a fourth-wall-breaking monologue about horror movie tropes right before he dies, because Shyamalan has the capability to be a good filmmaker, but never a subtle one.
After famed film critic Pauline Kael said that the first Dirty Harry film was kinda fascist, the Dirty Harry series, known for its timeliness, inserted a critic character in the last movie 17 years later. Of course, she gets murdered. But that isn't even 1988's biggest "Screw you, critics, and I don't care who knows it." John Carpenter inserted some evil alien film critics into the end of They Live, who are complaining about the violence in movies ... by John Carpenter. Truly, making your own creation worse is the best revenge.
Distracting Guest Stars
Bringing a guest star onto your sitcom can be a gamble. On one hand, it might get some nice exposure for the show if Brad Pitt graces a half-dozen snarky New Yorkers with his godly presence. On the other hand, writers often have no idea how to work them into the story outside of stopping everything to say, "Look who it is, everybody!"
For example, in the Friends episode "The One With The Ultimate Fighting Champion," Billy Crystal and Robin Williams show up to basically perform a sketch comedy routine while the regular cast watches.
That's not hyperbole. The two guys do a whole shtick unimpeded, and the main characters are reduced to audience members who have their names in the opening credits.
Or you have stars who have to work in their own outside gimmick, regardless of how little it would make sense to those who have no idea who they are. I'm gonna try not to be a big pro wrestling nerd about this scene from That '70s Show, ALTHOUGH THE WWF LOGO ON THE PAMPHLET WASN'T USED UNTIL 1982 ...
But if you didn't know that the Rock's third or fourth most important catchphrase was calling himself "the most electrifying man in sport's entertainment," you'd be left wondering why this muscly wrassler just paused to cock his eyebrow after joking about his hypothetical son's career.
Maybe the biggest perpetrator is How I Met Your Mother, which could rarely write a role for their female guests other than "pretty, famous girl who is, get this, actually stupid and horny." It was done with Britney Spears ...
... and Katy Perry ...
... and viewers never get the chance to get acclimated to them being part of the show. They're just being shafted with all the "dumb girl" jokes that the writers can muster. And that's the saddest fourth wall break of all, because you're suddenly all too aware that you're not watching a sincere effort at character work. You're watching interchangeable pop stars collect a paycheck in exchange for five minutes' worth of ditzy comments. And that sucks, because the singer of "Toxic" deserves waaaay better.
Daniel Dockery has a Twitter if you're interested in even more thoughts about how cool Blade is.