Movies like Wonder Woman, A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther and Love, Simon have discarded the gritty cynicism — often masked as realism — in favor of unapologetic earnestness. We’re witnessing the death of an old trend and the birth of a new kind of storytelling.
Over the last two decades or so, gritty blockbuster movies have become the norm. We saw it happen most clearly with superhero films, which successfully managed to discard the idea of “hero in tights” in favor of a more realistic, slightly more jaded one, starting with Iron Man and building up to the Avengers’ ensemble movies. We saw it again in YA movies, in which increasingly dystopic premises became more appealing.
And again, it was at the center of DC’s attempt to revive the Justice League stories… but by then it was too late. The trend is dying.
It’s not to say that dark sci-fi or adventure weren’t present in film before — many classics from the ’80s and ’90s fall into this category — but only now are the consequences of watching so many movies tinged with cynicism felt. The storytelling style is affecting the way we tell all our stories.
Back when this trend began to take shape, there was some appeal in showcasing the darkness of the world and finding hope in its midst, as a criticism of society and even ourselves. It felt revolutionary in its own way and brought meaning to what had once been frivolous genres.
But as franchises like Harry Potter grew older — becoming darker for the sake of its aging audience — and movies like the Hobbit appeared — forcing dark themes in an effort to appeal to adult audiences — the cynicism that colored our films became exhausting. We got tired of gritty. By the time Man of Steel came out, people were already weary of the darker hues of blues and greys that colored most superhero films, and ruthlessly picked apart the entire franchise that ensued, whereas some years before it might have been better received.
It was this, among many other elements, that made Wonder Woman such a success last year. Director Patty Jenkins, in an interview with the New York Times, perfectly described the new mentality that’s finally getting its time to shine in Hollywood:
“Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.
“I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.”
Interesting enough, in the case of Wonder Woman and A Wrinkle in Time — both films that have been criticized for being too sincere, too open about the message of love behind the story, even dismissed as “just popular because of political correctness” — both directors are women. Women have historically only been allowed to thrive in a handful of genres, while their work is universally considered cheesy (even Suzanne Collins was criticized for making Katniss, a teenager, too much like a teenager).
But now, perhaps free from some of the constraining definitions of what constitutes as “cool,” women making films the way they know they should be made. While gender norms have made society think that emotional films about love and hope aren’t cool enough (read: not cool enough for men) love and hope are exactly what we need right now.
Yet some critics, and even some audiences, continue to be skeptical of earnest films. Despite both Wonder Woman and Black Panther’s box office success, detractors criticized “PC-culture” (whatever that is) for making negative reviews “impossible.” More recently, though perhaps more subtly, the discourse surrounding A Wrinkle in Time has been oddly focused on the color of its actors rather than the story itself — and when the story is mentioned, it’s treated like a superficial, too-cheesy story. It’s not “cool” enough.
But do we really need a cynical “cool”? The success of these movies proves that audiences crave sincerity and unapologetic earnestness in their stories. Maybe we’re tired of seeing destruction and despair in movies when we’re so conscious of it in our everyday lives. Maybe we’re discovering how to tell stories in more complex ways; we know more ways to be critical of society than a dystopian setting. Maybe we need movies to mirror the reality of how we learn: not just through adversity, but also through laughter, hope and love.
Love, Simon was realistic and inspirational and had a happy ending. Black Panther was historically conscious and inspirational and funny. A Wrinkle in Time was a profound kid’s movie and inclusive. What was once perceived as a contradiction, consciously or unconsciously, is proving to be the most effective way to tell a story.
Our world is desperately in need of sincerity; in need of a worldview that channels misfortune into action, not cynicism. The only way to break down the barriers of distrust, defensiveness and prejudice is to be sincere and earnest in our efforts, and our movies should reflect that.