Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t a sequel.
Except it is.
James Gunn’s Suicide Squad isn’t a sequel – it’s a reboot.
Except it plans on returning several cast members from the first film.
Us isn’t a horror movie – it’s “elevated horror.”
Except it is a horror movie.
Welcome to Hollywood’s new normal, where prequels, sequels, reboots, and requels have become so commonplace not even the filmmakers always know what the heck to call their movie anymore. To be clear, on the list of things in this world worth arguing about, how exactly we choose to categorize certain films ranks pretty damn low, somewhere in the same range as the latest meme of the moment and whether Pluto is still a planet.
However, this latest run of Hollywood headscratchers speaks to a larger identity crisis impacting the industry. This is an age where nothing actually ends anymore and franchises like Halloween and Terminator can just repeatedly pretend decades of sequels never happened. Plus, old, rigid definitions about genre are increasingly giving way to more ambitious storytelling models.
In the face of that, how do you market your product so that audiences can tell their Captain Marvel from their Shazam! – two properties that at different points in their history went by the name Captain Marvel – or their Blumhouse “what if Laurie is a traumatized, overprotective grandmother finally taking the fight back to Michael 40 years later” Halloween from their “what if Laurie is a traumatized, overprotective mother finally taking the fight back to Michael 20 years later” Halloween H20?
Moreover, how do the filmmakers stay engaged with franchises and maybe lie to themselves a little bit about the job they took?
Patty Jenkins’ self-imposed storytelling challenge
In Patty Jenkins’ case, the way she is energizing herself to make Wonder Woman 2 (official title: Wonder Woman 1984) is to pretend it’s not Wonder Woman 2.
Earlier this year, she admitted, “I never want to do more of anything for the wrong reason. I don’t even want to go to that place in my head of how you keep it going and cash in. I want to make great movies in my lifetime . . . we can make a whole new movie about something completely new, and as unique in its own right as the first one.”
Sure. You can do that. As long as that “whole new movie about something completely new” is the second installment in the Wonder Woman franchise. Otherwise, you’re talking about a passion project, the type of thing studios don’t fund anymore and the mini-majors try to if they’re not already going out of business. If you find some funding, you’ll kill yourself over it, make no money off of it, and then take a complete roll of the dice that it doesn’t get completely lost in the constant content bubble that is pop culture.
Jenkins did that with Monster. Then she didn’t make another movie for 14 years, biding her time working in TV and spending a hot minute as the Thor: The Dark World director.
Such a trajectory is, sadly, not unique. This past year, for example, saw multiple films from female directors – Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), Debra Granik (Leave No Trace) – who hadn’t released anything since before Obama’s second term. Jenkins conquered that particular mountain by combining her indie sensibilities with mainstream pop and an unabashed love for the Richard Donner Superman movies. That gave us Wonder Woman, and the film’s immense success gave Jenkins a hefty pay raise to return for the sequel.
You either work in TV, live a life of constant uncertainty and economic hardship in the indie realm, or you find a major franchise and do just enough to make it your own. Ideally, you do more than one of those things at the same time. Jenkins, for example, executive produced and directed a bit of I Am the Night for TNT in-between Wonder Woman and WW84.
Now, her storytelling challenge to herself is to make WW84 live up to its title and feel less like Diana’s second major adventure and more like her 84th. (I know, I know….the 1984 title was actually picked for its Orwell connection and also because it’s the year the film will be set.)
It’s not exactly a crazy idea. There’s a major time jump between the two Wonder Woman films. Plus, Gal Gadot’s Diana has already been in another movie in the intervening years – Justice League, which, I swear, is a thing that actually happened even though it’s being erased from continuity so fast it now feels like a weird fever dream.
Why, then, should the next Wonder Woman just be a continuation of Diana’s first adventure? Why can’t this simply be her latest adventure in a line of many?
In a Vulture interview, producer Charles Roven explained how Jenkins’s approach to all of that, ‘“She was just determined that this movie should be the next iteration of Wonder Woman but not a sequel. And she’s definitely delivering on that. It’s a completely different time frame and you’ll get a sense of what Diana-slash–Wonder Woman had been doing in the intervening years. But it’s a completely different story that we’re telling. Even though it’ll have a lot of the same emotional things, a lot of humor, a lot of brave action. Tugs at the heartstrings as well.”
Except, by definition, Wonder Woman 1984 is a sequel. Thor: Ragnarok, for example, is a completely different story with a completely different sensibility than Thor: The Dark World, but it’s still a sequel. James Bond movies, an example many have pointed to in defense of Jenkins, are technically sequels as well, although some of them – like Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale – are prequel/reboots and then the movies that come after are sequels to the reboot.
Feature film isn’t really set up for this kind of confusion. For the majority of the medium’s existence, sequels were rare and generally looked down upon and film serials were really just features cut into little episodes with periodic cliffhangers. Then came the age of the film trilogy and with it a set of expectations for how to map a hero’s journey through such a prolonged narrative. (Consensus: The third part of the trilogy is always the worst.) Not too long after that, we endured one seemingly endless horror franchise after another.
Still, we knew what was a sequel and what wasn’t.
That was before comic books took over movie theaters and brought with them forever expanding mythologies, increasingly confusing continuities, and a willingness to reboot and start all over every couple of years. In that kind of environment, to think of Wonder Woman 1984 as simply the next installment in a comic book line makes sense – to insist it’s not a film sequel, however, seems purposefully obtuse.
It feels a bit like when Marvel suddenly changed course between making Infinity War-Part 1 and Infinity War-Part 2 and insisted that actually they’d be two totally separate films with different titles…even though one directly leads into the other. There’s a storytelling reason to think of it that way, sure, but there’s also the marketing challenge of audiences no longer liking the idea of movies being split into different parts. So that thing audiences are tired of? – Do everything you can to make them believe you’ve done something totally different.
Have we lost the ability to know what “total reboot” even means anymore?
Still, at least this has been born out of a storytelling challenge Jenkins seemingly foisted upon herself. The James Gunn-Suicide Squad situation sounds more like the classic early stages of a studio and filmmaker not being on the same page yet.
Producer Peter Safran told Joblo, “First of all, we don’t call it Suicide Squad 2 ’cause it’s a total reboot, so it’s The Suicide Squad and I think people should be extremely excited about it.”
Except previous reports indicated several of the actors from the first film would be back. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, for example, was at one point expected to make a cameo (not anymore), and Will Smith’s Deadshot plays such an integral role to the story they decided to recast rather than rewrite when Smith decided to back out.
What seems likely is Sarfran and co. intended for this to be a soft reboot – the type of thing that would nod toward the first film while mostly standing on its own with an entirely new group of characters – but now that the DC movies have embraced standalone storytelling over cinematic universe-building they’re just going full reboot.
That is if Peter Safran is the true authority here on what “total reboot” really means for the movie. Same goes for Charles Roven serving as Patty Jenkins’ translator.
Why does horror need to be “elevated”?
In those cases, two producers seem to be staking out early marketing positions for their movies. The “what exactly should we call Us?” example is more complicated. I first became aware of it when Blumhouse producer/Shock Waves podcaster Ryan Turek retweeted this from Horror Noire’s Tananarive Due:
Due is right- genre bias is real. As Bruce Campbell told The Pop Break, “[Horror] used to be one rung above porn, you weren’t really proud of it. It was looked down upon. You either started your career in horror or you were ending it in horror.”
Even with the recent mainstreaming of horror, the genre will always struggle to win over those who think they know what a horror movie is because they saw Halloween or Friday the 13th that one time. Part of Get Out’s successful Oscar campaign, remember, was down to Jordan Peele’s convincing voters to see it as a “social thriller” or a “documentary” instead of a horror movie.
In the wake of Get Out’s financial and ultimately Oscar-winning success, Peele continued on with his “social thriller” description, telling BusinessInsider (hat tip to OkayPlayer), “I have four other social thrillers that I want to unveil in the next decade…The best and scariest monsters in the world are human beings and what we are capable of especially when we get together. I’ve been working on these premises about these different social demons, these innately human monsters that are woven into the fabric of how we think and how we interact, and each one of my movies is going to be about a different one of these social demons.”
That sounds an awful lot like he’s at least partially describing his early thoughts about Us, a film in which a well off black family is terrorized by their mysterious doppelgangers. Those who saw Us at SXSW last week, however, agree it is far closer to a traditional horror movie than Get Out. Peele is now among them:
Those calling Us a “social thriller” are following what Peele said in the past. Those, on the other hand, calling it “elevated horror” are following a recent film critic trend. Heck, I’ve done this too, falling in line with the definition of movies like A24’s Hereditary, The Witch, and They Come At Night as “elevated horror” since they reach much further back than John Carpenter – I saw that as a Carpenter devotee – for their cinematic influences.
Even Hereditary’s Ari Aster preferred not to use the word “horror” in relation to his movie, ““I never talked about the film as ‘horror’ when we were getting it made. That’s not because I didn’t consider it a horror film — it’s definitely that. I just wanted everybody to be on the same page as me, so I avoided these terms that I think have become very loaded.”
Except isn’t that also a giant fuck you to all other horror movies? Yes, but as A24’s marketing repeatedly sells people on mainstream horror and gives them pure, unadulterated art house instead there has to be a way for critics to warn moviegoers. Maybe “elevated horror” isn’t quite the right phrase for it, but assigning such a label is a natural response from those who saw Hereditary last year in theaters full of duped-by-the-marketing teenagers who openly laughed at the movie’s most dramatic moments. I tend to think of this new breed of horror movies as “A24 horror” (even in those cases where A24 isn’t actually the distributor) or “slow burn horror.”
In all of these cases, that’s what it comes down to – cutting through the clutter and helping audiences understand what kind of movie to expect. In order to do that, sometimes you prefer to believe your sequel isn’t really a sequel and that your horror movie is actually a “social thriller.”
This is simply years of film history catching up with filmmakers and producers who are running away from terms that have become loaded due to overuse. Tell someone, for example, Us is a horror movie, they might have an automatic yes/no response; tell them it’s a “social thriller” and they might be more open to the idea of it.
In the end, though, you’re still making a sequel, reboot, or horror movie. How you choose to define it is between you and the audience. If they show up and like what you’ve done, maybe we can drop all those other labels and use this one instead: a good movie.