Alexander Hellene

Sledgehammer Messaging

By Alexander Hellene

Take a good, long look at this person. Read what they have to say. Truly understand that the hoary cliché from the right that these people are death cultists who can never create and only destroy rings true:

“Oh, not the whole, ‘They just wear a preexisting IP like a skinsuit and parade around like they—‘”

Yes. Yes, exactly that. Because it’s true. You know it. I know it. Most importantly, people like this know it.

So what do you do? How do you counter such blatant messaging? You don’t refuse to have a message. That’s conceding ground to the enemy without a fight. “Just tell good stories!” is good advice in general, but you have to understand that all fiction is “message fiction.” The keys are:

1. What is the message?


2. How do you present it?

*     *     *

Do you enjoy blunt force trauma? Does the thought of getting smashed in the head with some sort of hard, heavy object at great speeds sound really exciting to you? If so, then you’re kind of weird. If not, then apply this idea to metaphorical blunt force trauma. Or other unpleasant and humiliating turns of phrase, like “Having your nose rubbed in it” (with “it” being something kind of brown and smelly).

My 7th grade English teacher used to have a stock comment when she’d correct us students’ writing: “HMOTHWAS” which is a mouthful. It stands for “Hitting me over the head with a sledgehammer.” She used this phrase when our writing was too on-the-nose, too overdone, too much.

Imagine you’re settling own in front of your TV ready to watch the latest piece of superhero fare. You fire up your streaming service of choice ready to watch good guys beat the hell out of bad guys or whatever.

The show comes on, something about a super tall green attorney chick. It’s all quirky fun and games until wham, here comes the sledgehammer. Here comes THE MESSAGE.

Oof. Ouch. Dang! She-Hulk: Attorney at Law screenwriter Jessica Gao just put words into the mouth of the titular character that made you not like her anymore. Way to go. Here’s a medal for your stunning bravery.

What words? Well, I didn’t watch the show but I saw some screengrabs of the scene in question. It’s Basically, the message is “Men suck, so if course women get angry.”

You know who did watch the show? Carson Reeves of movie screenwriting site Scriptshadow. I like Scriptshadow. Carson often provides insights that apply to all arts and not just the movies. His review of She-Hulk is particularly incisive:

From there, we get the “fun and games” section where the Hulks play around with each other, tossing boulders into the atmosphere. It gets kind of fun, except that there’s this growing “men just don’t understand” subtext permeating the story. If Bruce is explaining something about being a Hulk, Jennifer sees it as “mansplaining.”

It’s mostly in a jokey way. But that’s when the show hits us with the line that’s now gone viral and which will be the nail in She-Hulk’s coffin. Because what the line says is, “This is a message show. We’re going to be propping up one gender over another. And if you don’t like that, buh-bye.” Which is their prerogative but it’s a fast way to lose half your audience. And why in the world would you want to do that?

Being this on-the-nose about ANYTHING isn’t going to work. There’s also such a generalization here from the character – painting gender with such a broad brush – that it makes her look ignorant. Which, in turn, makes us not like her.

One of my favorite movies from a couple of years ago was The Invisible Man. That movie was about the dangers of some men being toxic. And it never had a scene like this. Where the heroine spouts out on-the-nose dialogue about the state of the male gender. If ever there was an attacking line, it attacked the individual, her ex-husband. Not every person on the planet with a penis. Yet the movie gets its message across 1000x better than She-Hulk.

It’s frustrating because I like the actress here. And I like the idea of a superhero version of Ally McBeal (which is getting a sequel btw, BECAUSE of this show). But the second the show decided it wanted to be exclusive instead of inclusive, it was done. They may double-down with a series renewel [sic] out of spite for the blowback they’re getting. But mark my words, this series is toast.

See? That’s the problem with sledgehammer messaging: it makes at least half of your audience dislike the main character. And that, friends, is a nigh-absolute no-no when it comes to writing.

Carson continues:

We just saw Top Gun pass Avengers Infinity War at the domestic box office. What is Top Gun known for other than being a really great movie?


All it cared about was entertaining. And audiences were like, “FINALLY! We don’t have to be preached to. For once!”

Well . . . Top Gun: Maverick DOES have a message, but it’s one of those universal, timeless messages that is non-political, non-gender or race-specific, and worked into the narrative in a natural way.

“Nope,” the biggest major release message film of the year, made 100 million less than the studio was hoping for.

They/Them is getting destroyed by the very critics who are so desperate to prop it up.

They/Them looks so damn bad, man . . .

People are sick of the preaching. Yet She-Hulk is ready and willing to not only die on that hill, but become a martyr on it.

People are sick of preaching. I mean, HBO Max is under fire for laying off far-leftist “people of color” responsible for making shows that preach progressive politics in favor of stuff that appeals to, you know, normal people, because HBO Max, presumably, enjoys making money.

The taste of one’s own medicine is bitter indeed.

So what can you do if you do want to have a main character who is some sort of uber-feminist spouting far-left Tumblr-tier talking points? Carson has a prescription for that as well:

The thing is, there are ways to push messages and get the audience on your side. One way is to take the piss out of the preaching. When Jennifer says, “Men are toxic and the patriarchy is in charge and blah blah blah,” have Bruce say something like, “Okay, calm down there, Don Lemon.” Have more fun with it instead of slamming us over the head with a hammer, implying that if we don’t weep for Jennifer, we’re bad.

In other words, you can treat your characters like real human beings, preferably pre-Internet ones, who at least act like they’re from a time before being terminally on-line—and, interestingly, subjected to a constant stream of Marvel movies—has rewired their brain into being the most childish binary thinkers in human history. If you are not old enough to remember such a time, I am truly sorry.  

Humor, and opposing foils who are also written as actual people and not gross caricatures, is always a good way to balance out heavy handed messages. And maybe some messages have to be heavy handed, or you want the character to be strident. But there’s a line between “Presenting the audience with different viewpoints to create interesting character conflict and make them think” and “Smashing your audience in the head, repeatedly, with a one-sided message that portrays those who disagree with it as bad, stupid, evil, wrong, smelly, and probably psychopathic.”

“[W]hen you preach,” Carson concludes, “you literally achieve the OPPOSITE of what you were trying to do. We see you’re trying to insert a message into our head, which makes us resist the message. Instead, sell your message through SHOWING as opposed to telling.”

Sell your message through showing as opposed to telling.

Now that is how you do it.

And remember: you don’t have to watch the show.

Do my books have messages? Read one and find out!

2 thoughts on “Sledgehammer Messaging”

  1. Hitting the audience over the head with obvious messaging isn’t the only major problem. There are also lists of rules based on identity politics (sort of like a woke version of the Hays Code) being passed around an increasing number of Hollywood writer’s rooms that limit creativity and hamper the ability to tell good stories. Some of these lists come from the TTIE (Think Tank For Inclusion & Equality), some come from the Roddenberry Foundation, and there are likely others as well. In some cases, certain studios mandate following such rules (ESG is likely often involved in such cases). In other cases, the writers choose to do so voluntarily because of their own ideological views.

    Some examples of these rules are that a woman can’t be saved by a man or gain power or wisdom from a man, and that a disabled character can’t be shown overcoming a disability. There are also many others. And “She-Hulk” is a prime example of the issues caused by these types of rules.

    While I haven’t watched the show, I know enough of the first episode from reviews to know the story. And the changes from the comics are very telling. In the original She-Hulk comics, Jennifer Walters got badly injured in a car wreck and lost a lot of blood. Her cousin Bruce Banner was the only person avilable whose blood type was compatible with hers, so he was faced with a difficult choice: let her die from blood loss or donate some of his blood and pass on his Hulk “curse” to her. He chose the latter. This is a compelling story, and good writers could have milked it for all it’s worth. Bruce’s dilemma, Jennifer’s reaction when she wakes up and realizes that her cousin has given her his affliction, and Jennifer being mentored by Bruce with the wisdom he has gained in his years of experience as the Hulk are all great story material.

    But that would break the rules. So the writers of the show changed the story. In the show, Bruce doesn’t save Jennifer’s life. Instead, she rescues him. They are in the car wreck together, and he gets injured worse than her (as he is wearing an inhibitor on his arm to keep himself from hulking out). In the process of dragging the unconscious Bruce out of the car, she accidentally gets some of his blood onto a cut on her arm, causing her to become She-Hulk. This avoids breaking the rule against a man saving a woman, and while she technically still gets her power from a man, it’s in the process of saving him and is thus through her own agency instead of his. Later in the episode, Bruce reverts into his mild-mannered Professor Hulk form and brings Jennifer to an island to mentor and train her. But it turns out that she’s already perfect at everything he tries to teach her how to do (she can even throw boulders farther than he can), and all of his advice and wisdom is ultimately portrayed as clueless and ignorant. She knows everything better than him already and is repeatedly proven right by the events of the episode. This avoids breaking the rule against a woman gaining wisdom or mentorship from a man. These changes all suck all of the interesting drama out of the story and render it dull and trite. Even without the scenes of heavy-handed preaching, the story would already be poor thanks to these creative shackles.

    “Well . . . Top Gun: Maverick DOES have a message, but it’s one of those universal, timeless messages that is non-political, non-gender or race-specific, and worked into the narrative in a natural way.”

    Having seen the movie, my main takeaways in terms of themes or messages are:

    1. People are better than machines.

    Part of Maverick’s motivation in the movie is to prove that human fighter pilots are still better than drones. An antagonistic member of the military brass (played by Ed Harris) wants to phase out pilots and put more funding into a drone program. The finale of the movie features a suspenseful sequence in which Maverick must discover whether he can overcome the massive disadvantage of fighting state-of-the-art new fighter jets in a decades-old one by using his superior piloting skills and years of experience.

    2. Fathers and mentors matter.

    A major part of the movie is the relationship between Maverick and Goose’s son, Rooster. The toll that growing up without Goose had on Rooster is evident. Maverick steps up to become Rooster’s mentor and helps him achieve his fullest potential.

    3. The best way to lead is through example.

    The importance of Maverick’s leadership to the team of pilots in general is a major focus of the movie. One of the best parts of the movie is the scene in which Maverick has to demonstrate by example that the mission is possible.

    4. Always do what’s right, not always what you have been told.

    On multiple occasions, characters have to choose between following orders or doing what’s right, with the latter being portrayed as more important.

    5. Bring ’em back alive.

    The top brass are portrayed as being willing to send a bunch of young fighter pilots on a suicide mission. Maverick’s most important goal in the movie is to (despite opposition from the leadership at times) find a way to not only succeed in the mission, but to bring everyone back alive.

    I saw your separate question on the subject of “Top Gun: Maverick” here:

    My opinion regarding your question is that it’s not pro-defense contractor propaganda. Its story doesn’t feature defense contractors in any significant capacity (positive or negative). Now, it could be interpreted as recruitment propaganda, as it portrays Navy fighter pilots in a way that makes them look ultra-cool, but that’s nothing new. The original “Top Gun” did the same, essentially turning Navy pilots into rock stars overnight. If anything, the sequel is more balanced in its approach, as it goes into more detail about just how difficult and dangerous being a fighter pilot is (including some scenes demonstrating the grueling experience of enduring extreme G-forces).

    I personally liked that the enemy country is never identified. The audience never even gets to see what race or ethnicity the enemy pilots are. Some people saw this as cowardice and wanted the identity of the country to be shown (right-leaning people tended to want it to be China or Iran, left-leaning people tended to want it to be Russia), but for me, not showing which country it was helps the movie avoid feeling like propaganda in favor of America fighting any particular country. It keeps the story focused on the mission, not any real-world politics. The one element of the movie that comes across as involving any particular foreign policy is that the nature of the mission could be seen as somewhat interventionist (the goal is to blow up a nuclear enrichment facility in an unnamed “rogue state” that is said to be “unsanctioned by NATO” which wants to create nuclear weapons, with a ticking clock element due to the necessity of destroying the facility before before the first nuclear materials arrive at it). However, this feels less like an attempt to tip the audience’s opinion in favor of any particular foreign policy and more like a way to set up the movie’s final set piece (a homage to the Death Star trench run scene from the original “Star Wars”), which wouldn’t be possible without a plot involving attacking a base in a foreign country.

    I read Brian Niemeier’s blog post about the connections between David Ellison (one of the movie’s producers), his father’s company Oracle (which has CIA ties), and the Air Force (the Air Force made a $1 billion deal to use Oracle’s cloud servers, and there was an Air Force ad before “Top Gun: Maverick” in theaters). I can’t argue with any of the facts that he lays out regarding those connections, but I personally don’t believe them to have resulted in the movie containing any egregious elements, unless one counts the military recruitment angle as a negative.

    One thing to note is that the movie’s military recruitment angle and the massive amount of help (in the form of equipment and personnel) that the production received from the Pentagon is not a revelation or a discovery, as it was never hidden by the studio, the military, or the mainstream media. It was openly acknowledged by all involved, and for months leading up the movie’s release, there were dozens of Internet articles and television news stories speculating about the possibility that the movie might boost fighter pilot recruitment like its 1986 predecessor did.

    The reason for the Air Force ad that appeared before the movie in theaters is that the Top Gun movies are about Navy pilots. The first movie famously increased fighter pilot recruitment (supposedly by 500%, although this hasn’t been confirmed), and it was no secret that that the Pentagon was hoping the sequel would do the same (which is why they were eager to lend fighter jets, pilots, etc, to the production for a price of next-to-nothing). The Air Force, knowing that the movie was specifically about Navy pilots, wanted to remind viewers that the Navy isn’t the only military branch with fighter jets, hoping order to steer some prospective fighter pilots in the audience in their own direction rather than the Navy’s. So they likely leaned on their connection with David Ellison to have an Air Force ad appear before the movie. The ad even features the line “the entire sky belongs to us”, which feels almost like a diss aimed at the Navy’s fighter jet program.

    There are some situations in which partnerships between Hollywood and the military and/or CIA have resulted in egregious propaganda being placed in movies. A notable example is “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), which was made in close collaboration with the CIA and twists the portrayal of real-life events in order to promote the CIA’s preferred narrative.

    As for whether the Hollywood/Pentagon partnership resulted in anything bad regarding “Top Gun: Maverick”, that depends on whether one counts the possibility that it could increase fighter pilot recruitment as a bad thing. It is of course true that U.S. foreign policy has been (to use an understatement) far less than ideal for many decades, and that if “Top Gun Maverick” does boost fighter pilot recruitment, some of those pilots might very well wind up being sent by Washington, D.C. into fights that would best be left unfought. On the one hand, a strong military is important for peace, as fear of reprisal is the strongest deterrent against foreign attack (peace through strength). So military recruitment, in and of itself, is generally a good thing. But the tricky factor is that on the other hand, it is possible that a stronger military could embolden the “leadership” in Washington to start more wars than they are willing to attempt with the current low recruitment numbers. So it’s a complicated issue, and I can understand anyone falling on either side of it.

    But somehow I doubt that this one movie is going to tip the scales enough to actually cause a war. You need more than fighter pilots to fight a war, after all, and I doubt that “Top Gun: Maverick” is going to boost recruitment for ground troops anytime soon. Frankly, I haven’t seen any evidence that it has even boosted fighter pilot recruitment. For months leading up the movie’s release, there was much chatter from the media and military about the movie possibly boosting recruitment numbers, but now, months after its release…crickets. In fact, if I run a Google search for the phrase “current military recruitment numbers” and narrow the search to the past month, every single mainstream media article from this very month that shows up laments that military recruitment numbers are still poor, and none of them include any disclaimers to the effect of “except for the Air Force and the Navy’s fighter jet division”. Just a few examples:

    If “Top Gun: Maverick” indeed boosted recruitment like the Pentagon had very openly hoped that it would, why aren’t they equally openly celebrating it now? Maybe what worked in 1986 doesn’t work anymore…

    “I mean, HBO Max is under fire for laying off far-leftist “people of color” responsible for making shows that preach progressive politics in favor of stuff that appeals to, you know, normal people, because HBO Max, presumably, enjoys making money.”

    What the headlines don’t mention is that dozens of white employees were laid off as well. A bunch of people off all races got fired because they weren’t doing their jobs well. But that doesn’t fit with the narrative, so it gets buried in the fine print and only the firing of the non-white employees is publicized.

    1. Hardwicke,

      This is quite the comment! Forgive me for taking so long to respond–there’s a lot of good stuff here. I’ll try to take it in turn:

      Some examples of these rules are that a woman can’t be saved by a man or gain power or wisdom from a man, and that a disabled character can’t be shown overcoming a disability. There are also many others. And “She-Hulk” is a prime example of the issues caused by these types of rules.

      You nailed this! I didn’t bring up these unwritten rules in this post since I feel like I bang on about these ad nauseum, but other such rules include (a) a white hero can never contend against a non-white villain, (b) a non-white hero can contend against a non-white villain, but the non-white villain has to have laudable aims, with the only dispute being the means by which they’re achieved, and (c) an earnestly religious person, if Christian, will be proven to be a hypocrite, the bad guy, and/or have their faith shattered by something that allows them to “progress” in a meaningful way, but earnestly religious non-Christians will have their beliefs confirmed and respected by everybody, even atheist characters.

      There are more, of course, but that could be another post in and of itself.

      Lastly on this point, the She-Hulk show just looks dreadful. All I have to say is: CGI twerking. Never.

      Your points about Top Gun: Maverick make it sound like a fun movie with timeless messaging regardless of any pro-defense industry propaganda. Perhaps we’re all looking too deeply to find that connection? Your question of whether increased Air Force enlistment, if any, would be a bad thing is a good one. I would sleep at night better knowing we have driven and competent people in our armed forces. What keeps me up at night is the knowledge of what our criminally insane government uses said armed forces for. Still, I did enjoy the first movie and would like to see this sequel eventually.

      What the headlines don’t mention is that dozens of white employees were laid off as well. A bunch of people off all races got fired because they weren’t doing their jobs well. But that doesn’t fit with the narrative, so it gets buried in the fine print and only the firing of the non-white employees is publicized.

      Color me shocked. After all, progress is when only whites get fired and diversity just means no whites.

      All in all, thanks as always for the great comments man! You help keep the conversation alive. I appreciate that.

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