Beyond dramatic climaxes and character arcs, many stories have a message to deliver. This message might be a statement on human nature, a cautionary tale about environmental damage, a call for social justice, or anything else you can imagine. Sometimes a message isn’t even intentional, but it shines through nonetheless.
Ideally, a story should be focused around its message. After all, it’s usually the message that gives a story longevity. But this isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes a story will actively sabotage its own message. This is rarely on purpose, but it happens anyway. Details of character and plot contradict what the story is trying to say, and the audience’s experience suffers.
1. Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman is a good film, certainly the best film DC has produced in years, but its message is confused. Ostensibly, this is a film about defeating war. Sometimes war is manifested by Ares, the literal God of War, and sometimes it’s represented by humanity’s innately destructive tendencies.
With that message in mind, it makes sense that the film is set in World War One. That conflict is almost completely devoid of a moral justification to modern Americans.* Setting the film in World War Two wouldn’t have worked. In that conflict, the problem was Nazis, not war. But the Great War is perfect, because it was mostly waged due to a complicated web of treaties and one nationalist shooting an archduke.
Unfortunately, the film flounders in actually portraying the war as morally ambiguous. Wonder Woman spends most of the film in the company of the Allies, who are set up as the good guys. We are clearly encouraged to cheer when she defeats Germans, making them the bad guys. The Germans attack Themyscira without provocation, they murder civilians, and it’s to them Ares goes with his diabolical weapons. The Allies display no such behavior, and if Ares ever gave them horrific weapons, the film doesn’t show it.
If the Germans are the villains in this conflict, then war itself isn’t really the problem; Germans are the problem. Wonder Woman should probably devote her considerable power to defeating them as quickly as possible. The message is further confused at the end when Wonder Woman decides not to give in to her rage and kill a major villain. This is supposed to be Wonder Woman taking a stand against the evils of war, but it’s a bit late since just a few seconds ago she went berserk and slaughtered a whole group of rank-and-file soldiers. Did those soldiers need to die more than the villain, who was largely responsible for Germany’s use of horrific poison gas?
The film tries to balance this out by showing some German commanders who want peace before they’re killed by General Ludendorff, but it’s not enough. The message is further weakened when the film reveals that Ares himself is behind the upcoming armistice to end the war, which implies that peace is bad and war is good, but the God of War is bad. Sure.
2. Star Trek: The Outcast
Star Trek has a long history of blatant messaging, but one area it’s constantly lagged behind is queer representation. For much of its history, Trek pretended LGBT people didn’t exist, despite promises from Roddenberry that The Next Generation would have a gay character. Then, in season five, everything changed, though not for the better.
The Outcast is an episode that attempts to parallel the struggle for gay rights but uses aliens as a stand in. In a vacuum, that’s not a bad idea. It would allow the writers to explore the issue without the disheartening message that homophobia has survived into the 24th century. Unfortunately, the episode’s actual message was a disaster.
First, no gay people exist in this episode paralleling gay rights. We see several couples holding hands in Ten Forward, but all of them are made up of a woman and a man. Then, when Riker explains human sexuality to his alien romantic interest, he does so in purely heterosexual terms.*
Then, we get to the aliens who are supposed to parallel the struggle for gay rights. In short, they are a monogendered culture that violently suppresses anyone who express a desire to present as either male or female. Soren, Riker’s romantic interest, is a victim of such suppression. Soren identifies as a woman and lives in secret until someone notices her dalliance with the Enterprise’s first officer.
Soren is then put on trial for wanting to be heterosexual. The aliens are all played by women, which makes the whole thing read like a planet of lesbians trying to oppress the one straight woman. This is what’s known as a “simple reversal,” similar to creating a world where men are the target of sexism in exactly the same way women are in real life. Simple reversals rarely work, because they cast a disenfranchised group in the role of villain. While they might provoke some people to consider real-life oppression, simple reversals are just as likely to make an audience think “whew, glad we don’t live in a world where those people are empowered.”
Taken together, the lack of gay humans and the evil gay aliens leaves The Outcast’s message in tatters. It was a half hearted, poorly thought out attempt, and it had predictable results.
3. District 9
Based on the short film Alive in Johannesburg, District 9 is a story of alien refugees arriving in South Africa, only to be forced into a walled-off district and treated like garbage. The film is a clear parallel to apartheid and racism in general. It uses aliens to showcase the horrible ways humans are often treated. At least it tries to.
The first place District 9 stumbles is in its portrayal of the aliens. As you’d expect, they suffer from a number of stereotypes put on them by humans. The aliens are widely believed to be of low intelligence and incapable of taking care of themselves, similar to the way racial minorities are often called lazy and stupid. The problem is that as far as the film shows us, the stereotypes are true.
We don’t actually spend a lot of time with the aliens, but most of what the film shows us revolves around their trading advanced technology for cheap cat food. Keep in mind that by the time the film starts, the aliens have been on Earth for nearly 30 years, and yet they’re still willing to trade laser guns for a few dollars worth of canned tuna. The only alien we see who acts intelligent is the supporting protagonist, who has a human name and wears human clothes. This was probably a visual trick to help distinguish him, but it still sends the message that the more admirable aliens are those that best resemble their oppressors.
But at least the aliens don’t really exist. Worse is the film’s treatment of actual humans. In this film about racism set in South Africa, the protagonist is a white human man. The film focuses on his character arc above all things. So not only did the film makers pass up an obvious opportunity to cast an actor of color, but they focused their story on the oppressor rather than the oppressed.
And then there are the Nigerians. One of the film’s secondary antagonists is a gang of Nigerian smugglers, and they are… problematic. Their base is full of stereotypical “darkest Africa” style decorations, and they have a witch doctor on staff that they consult for important decisions. If that wasn’t enough, their leader is convinced he can gain the aliens’ power by consuming their flesh. Their entire portrayal comes across as animalistic, and they make up most of the film’s black cast. That might undermine the anti-racist message just a bit.
4. His Dark Materials
This cross dimensional steampunk fantasy series is well known as an atheist takedown of Catholicism. The big bads are the Church and God,* both of whom want to control and subjugate humanity. On the other side, Lord Asriel builds an army to challenge Heaven and win freedom for all. Heck, the book even reveals that God didn’t create the universe, he just found it and declared himself ruler. Can’t get much clearer than that.
But things get a lot muddier when you examine the specifics. You see, Lord Asriel’s story is that he leaves his home dimension to wage war against God, but it never explains how he knew God was real. There’s no divine magic in his world, no oracles who speak to the Almighty. There’s exactly as much evidence that God exists in Asriel’s world as there is in ours. Ironically, Asriel takes the existence of God completely on faith, which goes against a core principle of atheism.
The issue is further confused because as the book goes on, it’s revealed that while God does exist in this setting, he doesn’t actively interfere in the lives of mortals. He just sits in his own dimension, presumably laughing at human attempts to reconcile free will with a deterministic universe. The only reason Asriel has anyone to fight is that in a complete coincidence, the angel Metatron has recently seized control of Heaven and is planning to start actively meddling with humans. That’s fortunate for Asriel, because otherwise things would have been really awkward. “I’m here to fight you, God!” “Why? I’m just up here playing solitaire.”
At the end, it’s even revealed that Metatron imprisoned God in a magic cage. So in this story of rebelling against God, the villain is also someone who rebelled against God? Is rebelling against God good or bad? I’m so confused!
But all of this pales in comparison to the fact that Lord Asriel, the big atheist hero, is a child murderer. That’s not metaphorical, at the end of book one he literally kills a child in order to open a dimensional portal so he can go fight God. At the time this actually made perfect sense, because in the first book Lord Asriel was a secondary antagonist. It’s only in books two and three that the author decided he was an amazing hero that no one could stop praising. In the first book, Asriel wasn’t even trying to fight God. That motivation was retconned in over his original plans to destroy death itself.
With this change of direction, the author turned a child-murdering villain into an atheist hero. Considering how religious extremists love to paint atheists as child murders in real life, this wasn’t a good move.
5. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carrol’s surrealist fantasy story has been remade and adapted countless times, but never has it featured a message as blatant as Tim Burton’s version: Alice must stand up for herself and not do what others tell her to do. You see, at the beginning, Alice is engaged to marry a man she has no interest in. She’s told she must do this for the good of her family’s finances. From there, she falls into Wonderland and goes on an adventure that empowers her to assert herself and claim what she wants. Except not.
When Alice arrives in Wonderland, she’s told that because of an ancient prophesy, she’s destined to slay the Jabberwocky and end the Queen of Hearts’ evil reign.* Just one problem: Alice doesn’t want to kill the Jabberwocky. Strange as it may seem, this protagonist of a fantasy film isn’t interested in killing another sapient being. But the residents of Wonderland are persistent, telling her that she must put aside her personal feelings and act for the greater good. Hmm, why does that sound familiar?
Worse, we later find out that despite her status as the chosen instrument of destiny, Alice isn’t actually that important to the process. It turns out the Vorpal Sword will do all the work, she just has to hold onto it. At one point, the Jabberwocky even mocks her as an “insignificant bearer.” So not only does she have no choice in the process, but she’s also a completely passive entity.
If you’re expecting the film to pull a sudden twist where Alice rejects her destiny and doesn’t kill the Jabberwocky, you’re not alone. I couldn’t believe the filmmakers would be so tone deaf, but it turned out they were. Alice kills the Jabberwocky like everyone expects, or at least she holds onto the Vorpal Sword while it kills the Jabberwocky. Then she returns to her own world and acts as if her experience has somehow empowered her to reject the arranged marriage, even though everything she learned taught her the exact opposite.
Alice’s problem at the start of the film is that she’s expected to put aside her own desires and do what’s best for others. Then her adventure in Wonderland is all about her putting aside her own desires to do what’s best for others. But somehow at the end, she pulls an about face and rejects what others want from her in favor of her own happiness. The message isn’t just undermined, it’s completely contradicted. The fact that both her arranged marriage and fighting the Jabberwocky involve her passively accepting a phallic symbol just makes the whole thing a little grosser.
A story’s message is what gives it staying power. Writing styles and dramatic conventions change quickly, but a strong message can last for centuries. That’s why it’s so important not to undermine the messages in your own work. A confused message is less likely to resonate with the audience, and so the story will be quickly forgotten. But if a story supports a good message, it can go far indeed.
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