Pass the Popcorn: WW84 Is the Right Kind of Silly

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Movie theaters are safe, especially because everyone sits facing the same way, and WW84 is the right kind of silly movie to go see and remind yourself why we go see movies on big screens with big popcorns and lots of other humans.

Silly is not stupid. That’s an important mistake to avoid if you want to like movies. And as WW84 itself emphasizes, wanting in the right way is the key. It’s surprising, at least until you really get to know the deep parts of human nature, how many people who spend a lot of their time and money on movies don’t want to like them. Just like Anton Ego’s whole dysfunction was that he refused to “like” food. As C.S. Lewis said, “the world is divided not only into the happy and the unhappy, but into those who like happiness and those who, surprising as it may seem, really don’t.” That is WW84 in a nutshell, give or take an invisible jet.

As I wrote in my first-ever movie post, reviewing another movie that is very silly but not at all stupid – a movie should know exactly what it is, and signal to the audience up front what it is. “Here is the movie you have elected to see today,” is the ideal subtext for every opening scene. “If this is not what you want, get up right now and go see some other movie.”

WW84 makes it clear up front that it is a very silly movie. If that is not what you want, see some other movie.

But you’ll be missing out. In spite of its imperfect narrative structure, WW84 delivers exactly what it promises. A standard-issue superhero movie, including superhero-adjacent movies like James Bond, needs ten things to succeed. Here they are, ranked in descending order of importance:

1-7. A compelling villain.

8. Dialogue that isn’t stupid.

9. A hero who represents, magnified, some aspect of our Best Selves but is also at least reasonably relatable as a person.

10. A distinct moral perspective of the universe.

WW84’s villain carries the whole movie, and why shouldn’t he? That’s how superhero movies work.

“All you have to do is want it,” promises Maxwell Lord, who will destroy your life by granting you your fondest wish. As more and more people succumb to the seductive promise that you can have what you want, civilization itself collapses under the weight of ruined lives and incompatible visions. A world that defines reality based on what people want is a world where nothing is real, and above all nothing is fixed. Form dissolves into chaos, making both justice and beauty impossible, and mere absurdity reigns. In the final hour, when one man gains all power, there is nothing left for him to possess, for by the very act of gaining all power he removes all restraints, and thereby destroys the world.

All Lord’s power is in deception, for no one would take his deal if they understood what they were doing. But that’s the power of desire – the more powerfully we want, the less we understand our own desire. At last, the tyranny of desire destroys even our ability to enjoy the thing we desire, because we no longer really understand what it is we actually want. The more we tighten our grip on the thing we desire, the more we lose our true selves, and thus lose even the original form of the desire itself. In the end we lose even our humanity.

Anton Ego doesn’t like food, he loves it, and his love is more horrible than hatred.

It’s important to realize that this happens with good and right desires, not just wrong ones. Diana speaks for all of us when she cries out in desperation, “I give my all, every day, and I’m glad to do it. This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted, the only thing I would ever ask for. Why can’t I have this one thing?” Alas, that’s the trap.

The good news is that any of us can escape the trap at any time. No one is enslaved to Max Lord by anything except their own choice. You can have your life – your true self – back at any time. All you have to do is renounce your wish and choose to live in the truth. We can have the happiness that living in the truth affords, if only we abandon the desire to be happy on our own terms instead of happy on the terms life actually offers us.

And those who do choose to make the sacrifice will suddenly discover that they have new power that they never suspected, that they never dreamed they could have. The love that surrenders to death returns, in a new and glorious but completely unexpected form.

But this good news is bad news, because to renounce the wish is death to the natural self. We prefer to live a lie. Only a higher power (“the truth is greater than all of us”) can intervene to save mankind from itself, from its own evil and folly. And even that intervention doesn’t remove the need to choose truth over desire, to choose the death of the natural self; it only makes the choice possible for us.

But you knew all that already, because you saw the original Wonder Woman movie, where Diana learned that even Steve Trevor doesn’t deserve to be saved. That movie asked the question, “why kill yourself saving the world, when people are no damn good and they don’t deserve it?” The answer was “love.” What that movie did at the level of Homeric epic – titanic gods fighting each other for the fate of mankind – this movie does up close and personal, intimately.

And when people are intimate, it’s okay to be silly.

3 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: WW84 Is the Right Kind of Silly

  1. As always, your reviews make me enjoy the movie even more. I actually liked this better than Soul. I enjoyed Soul but am growing tired of these high-concept Pixar films. Just tell me a story, don’t tell me your high concept with a story as illustration.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Right – I haven’t seen Soul yet (no Disney+ sub) but as a rule it’s very hard to do high concept well. The high concept needs to be embodied by something that isn’t high concept, something that’s “low” and also worth doing on its own terms: toys that come to life and do goofy things when nobody’s watching, a flabby middle-aged superhero getting back in shape, five emotions having zany adventures in a preteen girl’s head. We were spoiled by many years of Pixar doing so much of that so well so consistently. But the spigot seems to be (temporarily, let’s hope) off. Meanwhile, anyone who really knows what they think about life and the world, and has a little talent for telling a story – It doesn’t take much! WW84 really is a messy movie with significant structure problems! – will deliver a better “high concept” experience without even trying.

      The whole movie Adaptation is about this! Need to go back and watch that, it’s been way too long.

      Thanks for your kind words!

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Upon further reflection, I think one reason people were not ready to adjust their expectations accordingly when the opening scenes of WW84 announced “ladies and gentlemen, this is going to be a very silly movie” is because it’s a major unexpected shift in tone from the first WW movie. With Marvel having conditioned us not to expect too much silliness in, ahem, comic book movies, it was going to be hard enough to get the audience there already. The abrupt shift from the original WW made it doubly difficult.

    OTOH, WW84’s silliness is much more faithful to the tone of much historical WW material, especially the TV show, and I think this movie actually is reaching the audience that remembers and loves that version of WW pretty effectively.

    As Joss Whedon said about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, before he was famous, “my attitude is, if you can’t give this show a fair shot because it has vampires in it, then you’re not invited to this party.”

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