Henry Bevan defends conventional storytelling…
One of the most annoying and backhanded critical compliments is “it’s great but conventional.” So many films met with critical acclaim are often simultaneously bashed for presenting their stories in a popular way. It is lazy and naive thinking to dismiss something as conventional without engaging with why it is. It also ignores the power of conventional storytelling, as films like Wonder Woman, Moana and Hidden Figures prove, just because it is familiar doesn’t mean it can’t be impactful.
For the purpose of clarification, when I say conventional I don’t mean stealing/borrowing/homaging moments from other movies. Like The Mummy just realised, that’s a bad filmmaking. I’m defining a conventional storytelling as sticking to a familiar formula or template such as the superhero origin story or the Disney formula. These narratives have become beloved for a reason, and as the three aforementioned movies show, there is a lot of room within this certain sandbox.
So here’s a question: would Wonder Woman have been as good if it wasn’t an instantly recognisable superhero movie? Sure, it being different and subversive would have created a different movie, one that could have potentially been amazing, but it is by being familiar and adhering to the established origin story template, the film highlights how unique it is within the superhero genre and normalises its progressive elements. Familiarity isn’t a cinema sin. If you can trace the influences, in this case, Richard Donner’s Superman, the diversions from the formula are amplified.
During the scenes when Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve (Chris Pine) arrive in London, she is impatient to get to the front. This is nothing new for the superhero genre. They often desire being thrown into combat but unlike Captain America and most other male superheroes who want to fight for fighting’s sake, Wonder Woman wants to end the war. She just understands fighting is a by-product of this aim. Here, we have a conventional situation, but it has been tweaked to show how Wonder Woman is different to her counterparts.
Also, Steve is the perfect superhero love interest. He, unlike his female counterparts, has agency and the film does a good job at making him Diana’s semi-equal. You believe she’d fall in love with this “above average” man. Patty Jenkins could have ditched the love interest, but she kept it in because she knows how integral the character is to superhero stories, and it is Diana’s love for the world that ends up saving it. Once again, the film subtly twists a conventional trope, creating a way forward all superhero love interests should follow.
Paradoxically, Moana removes the love interest from the infamous Disney formula whilst keeping everything the animation studio is known for: it has a princess, an easily merchandisable animal sidekick and company stalwarts Jon Musker and Ron Clements. It is entirely conventional, and the lack of love interest makes the self-worth journey most Disney protagonists go through all the more powerful because for the first time in forever it isn’t tied to a heteronormative romantic coupling.
Elsewhere, Hidden Figures may be a by-the-numbers civil rights drama, but as this article has made clear, convention amplifies its uniqueness. As the film feels familiar we notice we’ve never seen a story about female African-American mathematicians. We become angry we don’t know this story, and in the end, presenting Katherine Johnson’s story, Wonder Woman’s story and Moana’s story in conventional terms helps us get angry at past injustices and helps us accept a female superhero and a boyfriendless princess.