–written by reysspeeder with contributions from conn8d
As audiences emerged from theaters for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, one question kept getting repeated:
Um…What the kriff did I just watch?
While there were audience members that enjoyed the film, many left feeling confused, hurt, surprised, and disappointed. Possibly the worst part was that these feelings weren’t new, not even for the past year. Because more and more frequently big budget media productions are leaving audiences feeling worn down, dejected, and flat out insulted. What exactly is happening here? Shouldn’t filmmakers want to create things that make viewers feel glad they decided to watch? Why would they want to make things that, even accidentally, discourage viewers? This series, Subverting Storytelling, is a three-part investigation to answer these questions, and more. The first installment, Part 1: The Problem, delineates the predicament currently facing both Hollywood and audiences: there is a trend of big-budget productions disappointing viewers on the same scale and in the same way. Information about the trend, what productions are included, and what they all have in common are revealed here.
The first time it happened was with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, in December 2017, where the film upset audiences to the point that “for the first time in history, the field of reaction was practically split in two” (Filmento, 2018). Critics adored the film but many general audience members outright hated it. This was especially noticeable in the divide between critic and audience scores for the film on Rotten Tomatoes, where critics awarded the film a “fresh” 91% score, but the audience score was much lower at a “rotten” 43%.
The divide wasn’t just between critics and audiences, though, because many general audience members loved it as much as the critics–the polarization between those who absolutely loved and absolutely loathed the film had never been so extreme.
Then, in early 2019, the final season of Game of Thrones aired and was met with what could be described as an audience reaction “trash fire” that resulted in the internet just collectively losing its mind (Ellis, 2019a; Keveney, 2019). Everyone and their mother wanted to talk about how disastrously the ending was handled by creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. And while most critiques of the finale brought up the similarities between how both it and The Last Jedi were handled poorly, they both still felt like isolated incidents. This changed in December when Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker released in theaters to become the third production in what is now looking less like a collection of isolated one-off incidents, and more like an actual pattern. Here again, critics and audiences split with critics giving Rise a 58%, while audiences gave a “fresh” 86% (Hibberd, 2019).
To make matters worse, the films opening box office total was lower than both installments preceding it and ignited a mountain of negative fan reactions online (Surrey, 2019). And it is here, following the third instance of the “trash fire” pattern, with Rise of Skywalker, that questions are arising as to why so many big-budget entertainment properties are taking nose dives into their own narrative infernos, and whether something larger is behind it.
What is this problem, beyond being simply strongly disliked by lots of people, that all of these cases have in common?
Take all three incidents: The Last Jedi, Game of Thrones, and The Rise of Skywalker. Most discussions about the issues with each tend to be plot specific, meaning peoples complaints have a lot to do with each of the individual stories being told. Since each of the franchises are based in completely different plots, characters, and conflicts, the assumption is that there couldn’t possibly be similarities between them. But there is one thing they share in common: all three subverted expectations specifically by breaking the relationship of setup and payoff in storytelling. This means that all three did not just subvert expectations by delivering an unexpected twist, but that the very conventions themselves were overturned and thrown out.
For those not immediately familiar with narrative elements, setup and payoff is a principle in storytelling used to familiarize audiences with aspects the creator wants to make especially meaningful throughout the viewing experience. It is accomplished by using moments in a story to acquaint the audience with information that will later prove to be important for appreciating and understanding the outcome later on. What makes setup and payoff fun is that the clues meant to be important are often not obvious. Storytellers will rarely put a bright flashing sign in front of a scene to tell the audience: “This will be important later!!” Rather, both writers and audiences make a game of it, and anticipate which details will later prove to be more meaningful and in what ways.
It is the setup/payoff principle that separates “a memorable movie from a forgettable one” because it personalizes the plot and allows the viewer an opportunity to become involved with the story (Filmento, 2019). It also communicates the notion that the creator values and appreciates the audiences time. As Film critic Filmento describes it, “everything they see serves a purpose. Every moment that they spend is for something. For every minute that they give, they get something back, even in ways they didn’t necessarily expect” (Filmento, 2019b). A successful setup/payoff execution demonstrates implicitly that the creator understands that their audiences time is valuable. In order to ensure they don’t waste the audiences time, effort is put forth to make sure every storyline, sometimes every scene, is important to the overall consumption of the production.
Successful execution of the setup/payoff relationship serves a vital role in the relationship between the consumer and the creator. Audiences can never really know, aside from what the trailers tell them, how a film is going to turn out before they pay for the ticket and view it. Therefore, an unspoken deal, a truce, is formed between consumers and creators stating that when a person pays to view a piece of entertainment media, even if they end up personally disliking it in the end, they can at least expect some basic things to be true of the film. And one of those promises is that, to a certain extent, the creators will do their best to not waste the audiences time.
What does setup and payoff have to do with the notorious three? Instead of subverting audience expectations by making the payoffs related to the setups in surprising, unanticipated, or unique ways, all three productions opted instead to simply ‘subvert’ the practice itself by breaking one or both of the components. In all three of these cases the subversion was of the setup/payoff principle itself, rather than simply subverting expectations about the story within those conventions.
In The Last Jedi, writer and director Rian Johnson subverted the setup/payoff principle by explicitly calling upon the setups shown in the preceding film, The Force Awakens, and repeatedly denying the audience payoff for all of them. This includes the lightsaber handoff from Rey to Luke, Snoke’s significance to the story, and even Rey’s heritage. All three had been set up in director J.J. Abrams’s signature “mystery box” style and had been the basis of which many fans were interested and invested in the upcoming films of the trilogy. For each setup provided in Force, Last Jedi made sure the audience understood they would not be getting payoff, and that investing in the setups of Force was a poor decision because–gotcha!–they’re not important at all.
Then, in the last season of Game of Thrones, which aired early 2019, it happened again. Film critic Lindsey Ellis (2019b) describes this pattern of throwing setup/payoff out as a “recurring problem” in the final season of Game of Thrones, where subverting expectations is given utmost importance, “despite the fact that it doesn’t work for the story” (Ellis, 2019b). One of the main characters and fan favorite, Daenerys, is shown to have–for lack of a better phrase–lost her mind and used her dragon to massacre innocent civilians. This was something that many viewers protested because they argued that the storytelling decision had not been properly set up, and that the payoff was delivered without any prior context. In other words, the payoff didn’t feel earned.
The argument was that if the outcome had been properly set up, it would therefore be possible to look back on previous episodes to see the clues that it was coming. And while there are some who argue that the decision was properly set up, the point is that there are a sizable number of viewers who disagree. Meaning that for a large percentage of the audience, the story simply didn’t make sense.
Ellis’s complaint is not limited to that one plot point. The same issue occurred with the conflict involving an arch antagonist, the Night King. Filmento says of the resolution,
“The issue of Snoke in The Last Jedi is the issue of the Night King in Season 8 [GoT]. Only here, it’s in a much larger scale. For almost a decade we’ve been building up this super intimidating warrior leader of the undead who basically is made to seem unbeatable. And when the time comes to pay him off, he just gets tossed aside. You don’t get to see him almost accomplish his main goal. We don’t get to see him fight. We don’t get to see him do much of anything. All we do get to see is how he just stands around and then literally falls into pieces. It is very shocking, yes, because after years of buildup, the audience obviously does expect to see him do something. But after that shock wears off, the feeling that kind of remains is, that’s it?”(Filmento, 2019a)
In this way, creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss created a shocking conclusion by disrupting what audiences understand and expect as normal within storytelling. The comparison to Last Jedi is made because the same thing was done to that villain, Snoke, as was done to the Night King.
Snoke was built up in Force Awakens to be a huge bad guy. In Force, he only spoke to Kylo Ren via hologram, and it was a hologram that displayed him to be 20 times his actual size. Following Force, audiences had a lot of questions about who Snoke was, how powerful he was, and what he ultimately wanted to do within the story.
These questions all have to do with the audience engaging earnestly with the setups provided within Force. Then, against audience expectations, in Last Jedi, Snoke turns out to be human-sized, is killed very easily, and exits the film with no payoff to those setups and questions from Force whatsoever. Both of these deaths did shock audiences by doing something unexpected in storytelling, but did so at the cost of the story itself.
It is difficult to believe that in 2019 the grand finale to not one, but two mega-franchises both traded shock value for story in the exact same way. In Ellis’s (2019b) extended review of the Game of Thrones final season, she closes by saying,
“I think that after the dust settles and all the hot takes are taken, the answer is going to be, no, [Game of Thrones is] not going to be remembered for the journey we all undertook, it’s going to be remembered as a thing that was ruined by its ending. One of the greatest examples of that, maybe ever.”Ellis (2019b)
What’s astonishing about this quote is that it didn’t even take a full year for The Rise of Skywalker to be released and cause her claim to go out of date. Even if Star Wars, as a result of Rise, isn’t the new greatest example of “a thing that was ruined by it’s ending,” it certainly gives the final season of Thrones a run for the money. Twitter user Waffles Inc summed up in the tweet,
“The best criticism I ever heard of GoT S8 was that it was ‘a destination so bad, it invalidated the journey.’ That you couldn’t enjoy any part of it anymore, knowing where it would wind up. And then, incredibly, in the same year we get The Rise of Skywalker”(Waffles Inc, 2019)
Audiences were shocked by the final installment of the sequel trilogy, directed by J.J. Abrams, not because the payoffs were delivered in an unexpected way, but because the setup/payoff principle was disregarded entirely, both within the film and for the trilogy overall. Why is Palpatine Back? Who are Rey’s parents? Why is Kylo bad? What was the point of this trilogy? The answer to all of these questions, and many more, is: it literally doesn’t matter. Just buy the ticket.
At present this strategy is an emerging pattern, not the new status quo for big-budget entertainment–for the time being. There are still recent big-budget productions that have not used the subversion of setup/payoff method. Notably with Avengers: Endgame that released in 2019. The film did not receive the same level of backlash as Last Jedi, Thrones, or Rise, even despite the fact that audiences may not universally agree on every decision made in the story. In fact, Avengers: Endgame didn’t receive anything close to resembling backlash. Critics and audiences both gave the film “fresh” 94% and 90% Rotten Tomatoes scores, respectively. It became the first film to make over a billion dollars during opening weekend, and when unadjusted for inflation it earned the most amount ever for a film worldwide: $2.79 billion, beating Avatar’s (2009) $2.789 billion (Abad-Santos, 2019). Another aspect distinguishing Endgame is that the film honors the principles of setup and payoff, which could not have been an easy task given that the film was meant to conclude 11 years of Marvel films.
While it is tempting to jump straight to explanations of why the viewers are reacting differently, it would be a mistake to put the blame of this pattern entirely on audiences without also questioning other contributing factors. Although this form of audience backlash is occurring more frequently, the responses are not consistent across all big-budget productions, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly positive reception of Avengers: Endgame. If audience reactions are not consistently negative across big-budget films, then the cause of the issue cannot solely be that audiences are becoming more unruly in general. Rather this type of response appears to be determined by the production, indicating that something is happening across these properties that is causing such a visceral and similar response.
Backlash to entertainment has been around as long as the entertainment itself, and in the past, instances of mass backlash were relatively few and far between. The fact that there have been at least three major productions causing audience backlash for the same reason in the past two years is rather unprecedented, and it warrants an examination of what could be causing this sudden increase in subversion of storytelling norms.
In the upcoming second installment of this three-part series, Subverting Storytelling, the factors contributing to the cause of this phenomenon will be investigated and discussed. This has been Part 1: identifying the trend of big-budget productions subverting storytelling conventions. Coming soon, Part 2 will delve into possible causes contributing to the uptick of dumpster fires and Part 3 will discuss the effects that the trend has had on audiences, creators, fans, and on the entertainment industry as a whole both now and in the future. Stay tuned for more.
Abad-Santos, A. (2019, July 22). Avengers: Endgame finally beats Avatar to become the biggest movie of all time. In Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2019/7/22/20703487/avengers-endgame-avatar-biggest-movie-all-time-box-office
Ellis, L. (2019a, June 28). We Need to Talk About Game of Thrones I Guess. In YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hys_m3BPTS8
Ellis, L. (2019b, August 14). The Last of the Game of Thrones Hot Takes. In YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGr0NRx3TKU
Filmento. (2018, March 18). The Last Jedi — How To Break A Fanbase | Film Perfection. In YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2Jdi2NWq0w
Filmento. (2019b, June 21). Us — How Inconsistency Ruins Fear | Anatomy Of A Failure. In YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZhEhM7Dz7U
Hibberd, J. (2019, December 24). Opening night The Rise of Skywalker audience score shows a split with critics. In Entertainment. Retrieved from https://ew.com/movies/2019/12/20/star-wars-the-rise-of-skywalker-audience-score/
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (n.d.). In Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/star_wars_the_last_jedi
Surrey, M. (2019, December 23). At the Box Office, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ Underperforms and ‘Cats’ Bombs. In The Ringer. Retrieved from https://www.theringer.com/movies/2019/12/23/21035145/the-rise-of-skywalker-star-wars-cats-box-office
Waffles Inc. (2019, December 30). The best criticism I ever heard of GoT S8 was that it was “a destination so bad, it invalidated the journey.” That you couldn’t enjoy any part of it anymore, knowing where it would wind up And then, incredibly, in the same year we get The Rise of Skywalker [Twitter post]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/TFWaffleman/status/1211786705952526337