Screenwriting 101: When Summer Blockbusters Make You Think

By October 25, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By Britton Perelman

Summer blockbusters aren’t usually my thing. I much prefer the more complex, often quieter awards season movies than the action-packed, heavily promoted tentpole films.

Maybe that’s why I was struck by the top three movies of summer 2017 — because they made me think in ways summer blockbusters usually don’t. I’m talking, of course, about “Wonder Woman,” “Dunkirk,” and “Baby Driver.”

(Warning: Spoilers abound)

DUNKIRK

Throughout the summer, whenever we saw a billboard or preview for the film, my former-history-major boyfriend scoffed at “Dunkirk,” saying things like, “We shouldn’t be making movies that glorify the worst mistakes of WWII.” He might not have seen Christopher Nolan’s latest, but I did.

And I left the theater in utter confusion.

“Dunkirk” confounded me. It was good, but there seemed to be fundamental pieces missing. For instance, why did I not know any of the character’s names? I completely understand that the movie was about war, and the horrors of war alone, but the lack of dialogue (i.e. character’s saying one another’s names) made it incredibly hard to discuss the movie after the fact.

As much as I lauded the structure of the story itself, I couldn’t decide how I actually felt after seeing “Dunkirk.” If the ending wasn’t exactly happy, it could at least be called mildly triumphant. That didn’t sit right with me. It felt too neat, too “tied-up-with-a-bow,” while the evacuation was successful, the event as a whole is regarded as a military disaster.

BABY DRIVER

Back in the car after seeing “Baby Driver,” I made a comment to my boyfriend. “That was like your ‘La La Land.’” He didn’t know what I meant, so I explained. While “La La Land” was everything I loved about the movies, “Baby Driver” was the same for him.

When he asked me what I hadn’t liked about the movie, I listed a few things and then mentioned how I found it ridiculous that Debora was nothing more than the female love interest. She was barely a character, more like just an outline of a damsel in distress. It seemed old-fashioned to me. Hadn’t we moved away from those kinds of narratives, after all?

“You aren’t getting it,” he told me. “Did you enjoy the movie?” I balked. I had, but not in the way I enjoy others. “That’s not the point,” he said. “It’s a car chase movie with good music, that’s all. Don’t overthink it.”

I didn’t really understand at the time, but “Baby Driver’s” commanding handle of genre is unique. It was a car chase movie with good music — nothing more, nothing less. The filmmakers knew exactly what it was, and they used it to their advantage. It was a genre film in every sense of the word, a way of approaching storytelling I wasn’t used to.

WONDER WOMAN

I loved everything about the Gal Godot starring, first-ever-female-superhero movie that smashed box office and industry records alike. I hadn’t expected to need a female superhero movie in my life, but I quickly realized I had been wrong.

While everyone else praised the fact that there isn’t a single man in the first 30 or so minutes, I couldn’t stop thinking about the ending — everything that happens in that final battle between Diana and Ares. Months later, it’s still what I think of when someone mentions the movie.

Steve Trevor’s death is what’s known as a “refrigerator death.” I’ll spare you the details about how the term came to be, but it’s a phrase used to refer to any character’s death that occurs only to further the main character’s story. Typically, it’s in reference to female characters in comic books.

But Steve’s death wasn’t a refrigerator death … not really. He chose it. Instead of having “the writing powers that be” act as the cause of death, it is Steve who chooses to sacrifice himself for Diana.

I struggle with this though. I don’t want Steve’s death to be a refrigerator death, but the very fact that the story is written, that there is a writer, means that his death was to further Diana’s story. Whether he chose it or not, someone wrote him. It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg, I suppose. What comes first: the character or the writer?

These three summer movies got me thinking. Not to say that summer movies don’t usually make me think, but certainly not this much, and not this analytically.

Wondering about what responsibility we have in historical storytelling, considering the nature and purpose of genre films, debating the very essence of characters and their actions in relation to the writing — those are really good things to be thinking about as a writer.

Sorta makes you wonder if those summer blockbusters are so thoughtless after all, huh?


Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the latest thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her writing on her website, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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