The Value of the 4th Wall


Cooper Theodore

A term I’m sure most of us are familiar with is “breaking the 4th wall.” The idea of the 4th wall comes from theater, where a stage is made up of three walls with the invisible 4th wall facing the audience. The audience knows there’s no wall, but the stage characters do not. To them, there are four stable walls in which their world is contained. Now, theater would break this 4th wall sometimes to deliver monologues addressed to the audience about what the character was feeling at the moment, but the idea of breaking the 4th wall now is very popular for comedy or relating to the audience. Deadpool is often the character that comes to mind for people. He’s aware of the audience, the movie or comic he’s in, and that he’s a fictional character. This offers lots of opportunities to make fun of things normally outside of the scope of what can be commented on in a story.

When it comes to the comedic aspect of a 4th wall break, it’s very similar to a reference. It feels good if a character references a show or movie you enjoy. Why does it feel good? Probably has something to do with brain chemistry, but regardless, it works. A 4th wall break is similar in that it’s acknowledging something that you also know, so now you’re both in on the joke. This is all well and dandy, but whenever the 4th wall is broken, the integrity of the wall and the story are shaken.

I recently watched the Dungeons and Dragons movie and was very pleased to find no 4th wall breaks. I fully expected to see references to dice rolling, Dungeon Masters, or game aspects outside of the universe. They weren’t there, and I was very happy about that. Because of this, the world of the movie felt real, and the stakes held a lot of weight. A recent example I heard about of a 4th wall break ruining stakes is in the She-Hulk show. In the final episode (spoilers by the way), Jennifer Walters (or She-Hulk) addressed the audience about how bad the ending was shaping up to be. She escapes the show and travels through the Disney+ website to find the showrunners and berate them for their bad writing. They change it, and the episode wraps up with an ending that satisfies Jennifer. Is this funny? Yeah, but it also demolishes stakes. If things get serious later, can she change the story again? Are the superhero Wikipedia pages going to list this as one of her abilities? The stakes are not as strong since Jennifer isn’t taking the stakes seriously, and neither is the show.

Compare this to Deadpool, who knows everything is fictional, but what can he do about it? His powers do not interact with the real world, so all he has is the knowledge of the 4th wall, which he can sometimes use to his advantage, but mostly uses for jokes. In fact, the character has sometimes been used to show the phycological ramifications of knowing your world is fictional. There are comics where he shares that he knows if he’s not entertaining enough, he will “die” in that his line of comics will be put on hiatus. He’s talked about how he knows he’ll never get a happy ending because they want to keep making stories about him. It’s a dark take on the ramifications of this knowledge that, instead of dismantling stakes, increase them.

There are plenty of other examples of things that break the 4th wall, one of the most famous being Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which treats his 4th wall breaks kind of like the theater monologues where nobody notices him doing it. It’s just there to share his feelings with the audience. That’s not used much now, and instead, modern stories often use it for laughs or jokes that don’t have much substance besides a wink to the camera. A popular example is when the story jokes about problems with the media at hand. One example might be Maui in Moana joking about her being a princess using tropes from other Disney princess movies as examples or literally any joke in HBO’s Velma. It makes you wonder though, if the 4th wall-breaking writer is aware of tropes and the problems with them, why do they continue to participate in them? Sometimes there are good answers for this, but recognizing tropes opens good opportunities to adapt.

As is often the point of my long tirades, I think this goes to demonstrate that 4th wall breaks need to be used cautiously. Used well, they can be useful storytelling devices or add clever humor to a script. Used improperly, they can ruin stakes, diminish story integrity, or simply encourage easy jokes. If a character thinks their world is real, you’re more likely to agree with them.

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