This piece was published during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movies being covered here wouldn't exist.
By now we are all acquainted with the term multiverse. A cross-dimensional storytelling device for filmmakers to tie together films and intellectual properties across their portfolio. Whether it is in Deadpool, where Ryan Reynolds delivers a piece to the camera, breaking the fourth wall whilst the cast of X-Men: Days of Future Past close the door to appear in his sequel film, or the infamous ways Ready Player One and Space Jam 2: A New Legacy threw a smorgasbord of references at the film in the hopes that something sticks.
But what was once a quirk, a tool used by filmmakers for comedic effect has now created fatigue for meta and self-aware references. Gone are the days of looking at the camera disparately for comedic sake or roping in a loosely linked franchise in the hopes of sustaining interest. As, much like anything, money is involved, and where money is so noticeable, it oozes disingenuous exploitation. So, as we enter 2023 with huge financially linked films like Dungeons & Dragons and Barbie, there is an unconscious fear that they too will lean into, and subsequently fall trap of, the fatigue audiences are experiencing towards self-aware comedy.
Now of course, you could argue, “Well why don't films just make fun of that,” and firstly, the response would be please stop arguing with an article. This is very much a one-way conversation about being self-aware, and secondly, films have in truth made jest of the push from producers to make their capitalistic influences known. Wayne's World's iconic sequence featuring heavy product placement is just about as on-the-nose as it could be when it comes to biting the hand that feeds them.
Comparing that with the Dungeons & Dragons movie, a film produced in part by board-game owner Hasbro, and Barbie, likewise produced by Mattel, it isn't impossible to assume that both will be focussing their movies on pushing products. In a similar vein to how The LEGO Batman Movie used its originator's success to comfortably advertise the numerous licensed characters of playset LEGO Dimensions throughout the film such as Gremlins, Doctor Who, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Oz. It is hard to imagine therefore with money so intrinsically linked that neither 2023 toy adaptation would ignore using the opportunity to sell their products and grubby their hands with corporate greed.
Especially as, in the specific instance of Barbie, from the limited trailer released, it is apparent how Warner Bros is treating its involvement in a similar way to the aforementioned Space Jam 2: A New Legacy. For instance, the Space Jams sequel saw large criticism from its release in featuring references and cameos from Warner Bros properties that tonally jar from the playful cartoon basketball narrative. The inclusion of Pennywise the Clown from IT, the hyper-violent gang of the Croods from A Clockwork Orange and the adult comedy cartoon Rick & Morty are all prominently spotted, within each specific instance, sexual assault can be linked to its material, which is a jarring tonal shift from the slapstick nature of Space Jam.
While Barbie does have a sensational cast both in front of, and behind the camera, including writer Noah Baumbach, director Greta Gerwig, Margot Robbie, and Ryan Gosling as part of its principal cast, there is a genuine concern that its creativity will be muddled by the influence of profiteering. Why therefore the Barbie movie needs to feature a shot-for-shot remake of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is an odd parallel to draw for general audiences that may not have dissected the nuances of the 1968 philosophical science-fiction drama.
Plus, in interviews, the cast for Barbie, including Simu Liu and Will Ferrell have each confirmed worrying issues that the film will teeter into meta-self-awareness. Ferrell, who previously starred in Warner Bros' The LEGO Movie as Lord Business, and its live-action paternal character, is once more playing a narcissistic CEO. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Ferrell said, “It is, in my humble opinion, the ultimate example of high art and low art.
“It's a loving homage to the brand and, at the same time, couldn't be more satirical—just an amazing comment on male patriarchy and women in society and why Barbie's criticised and yet why every little girl still wants to play with Barbie.”
Comparatively, Simu Liu expressed his initial amazement at the script to CinemaBlend stating, “If only you knew. It's absolutely bonkers and it's absolutely weird and fun, heartfelt and all of the things.”
Unfortunately, the lack of cohesion that caused the downfalls of Ready Player One and Space Jam 2 to seem to be consistent with the tales of the Barbie movie's production, with Mattel using the movie as an attempt to juxtapose the controversies against their dolls in failing to keep up with representing beauty in all its forms.
It is without a doubt that Barbie is the most anticipated film of the year. Its cast, crew, and plot are surrounded in secrecy more so than any comic book cinematic universe release, and yet, in every attempt to arouse interest it has fallen fowl to the same pitfalls of earlier media adaptations as it continues to prioritise heavily on stylisation over substance.
Dungeons & Dragons may instead slip under the radar as an adaptation, but its ripples of corporate greed are already being felt ahead of its release. Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro, the owners of the fantasy role-playing game have seen a slew of issues regarding their licensing for the imaginative board game. The issues with greed at its core, have snowballed into many calling to boycott the Chris Pine led action comedy written by The LEGO Batman and Renfield director Chris McKay.
In conclusion, the trend of the multiverse and self-aware references in filmmaking has become a source of fatigue for audiences as it is often used as a tool for comedic effect and to tie together films and intellectual properties in a portfolio. As we enter further into 2023 with financially-linked films such as Dungeons & Dragons and Barbie, there is quite clearly a need for concern that they will also fall into the trap of exploiting this trend for profit. This could potentially lead to heavy product placement and references to other properties, which might muddle the creativity of these films. It's important for filmmakers to be mindful of the audience's fatigue towards self-aware comedy, and to not rely too heavily on meta-references or cross-dimensional storytelling. Instead, they should focus on creating a cohesive, engaging and unique story that stands on its own aside from its adaptive material.