Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
Can you feel that, or is it just me?
That persistent ringing in the ears? The pounding upon my temple as blood rushes to my brain, the first warning signs of an oncoming migraine?
It’s the psychosomatic manifestation of an alarm bell that goes off inside my head every time a movie producer says something incredibly concerning about an upcoming multimillion dollar movie.
This time, the producer in question is everyone’s favorite Adonis, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and the phrase that’s triggered the alarm bells is “worldbuilding”.
Speaking to good old Josh Horowitz for MTV, Dwayne explained his plans with the upcoming Black Adam movie thusly:
“We've had great discussions with Geoff Johns over at DC. This is a really fun, cool time for DC right now because they're worldbuilding. We're seeing that with Wonder Woman and Aquaman. We have a few surprises down the line.”
Uhoh. Those alarm bells are getting louder.
As important as having a good structure to your cinematic universe might be, it’s worrying when the word “worldbuilding” is thrown around more often than the far more important word, “storytelling”.
We probably have J.R.R. Tolkien to blame for the popularity of the concept of worldbuilding – his large fantasy realm exists mostly to expand the scope of the stories he tells, but too many people assume that the worldbuilding is the fun part of the process.
That’s not true. A story’s plot should be the most important element of actual storytelling, and no matter how detailed a creator’s plans regarding their fictional land’s history and royal lineage and stamp prices might be, these details shouldn’t obscure the meat and potatoes elements of narrative.
It’s understandable that DC wants to focus on worldbuilding at the moment, as, having let Zack Snyder do his wacky thing for too many movies, the universe is now ever so slightly irrevocably broken. Snyder has led the universe down a path that’s going to be hard to come back from, so it makes sense for Geoff Johns to be focusing on steering the cinematic framework back to a status quo that will allow creators to actually tell stories with the characters in these movies.
At the same time, though, movies that focus primarily on worldbuilding are inherently dull. Imagine, for example, if Iron Man focused primarily on setting up as many different Avenger backstories as possible, giving us laborious details around how World War II played out in this universe, or how Norse mythology is actually almost completely true. The weight of worldbuilding would have slowed things down terribly, when all we want to see is Robert Downey Jr partying with strippers and flying around in an Iron Man suit.
Regardless, Dwayne Johnson is very enthusiastic about his Black Adam movie. Speaking about his immediate plans, he said:
“[What] we decided to do was to create a scenario where Black Adam has his stand-alone movie, and Captain Marvel, Shazam, has his stand-alone movie. We're building our world that way, and then we can come together at some point.”
There he goes again, talking about worldbuilding without any indication that the movie has, you know, a plot.
It’s nice to hear that DC producers are finally showing some willingness to play the long game with their cinematic universe, but if it means that Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Black Adam, and other movies will be an almighty slog of exposition of unnecessary teases for future movies, as with some superhero movies (we’re all looking at you, Amazing Spider-Man franchise), then it’s entirely possible that this approach will kill the DCEU faster than anything Zack Snyder could have dreamed up.
After all, nothing destroys a movie franchise faster than turning every movie into a commercial for future movies, without actually bothering to tell a story in each film.
So just in case you’re Googling yourself and you’ve stumbled in here, Dwayne, please, we implore you.
Get the story for Black Adam done first, and then worry about all the worldbuilding later.
It’s the only way to save your movie from mediocrity.