Monday, September 29, 2014

No Jokes: A Ramble

Perhaps I was quick and blunt when it was rumored that Warner Bros. supposedly requires DC Entertainment to make films with "no jokes"…

Before I get started, why do I like the more humorous, often-lighthearted Marvel Cinematic Universe films? Why do I prefer all of them to Warner Bros./DC's first DC Cinematic Universe film, Man of Steel? I feel that the Marvel films have a little something called "humanity". When I say that, I mean that the films have characters that have clear personalities and showcase a wide range of different emotions. Tony Stark is an excellent example. Brash, sarcastic, a jerk even. But at the same time, he takes things seriously when he needs to, he can also be sad or let down, he can also get angry. The same goes for Thor, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, the whole bit…

The Marvel MCU films, I think, use humor where it's needed. The writers balance the tones of their films perfectly. Guardians of the Galaxy was very comedic and relished in absurdity and weirdness, whereas Captain America: The Winter Soldier was definitely a more serious affair considering what goes down in that film and what the titular shield-wielder has to deal with. But both films weren't either fully "comedic" or fully "serious". They deftly mixed both, though some films like Guardians do veer more towards comedy. But what's wrong with that? As long as it packs in other emotions, it's fine. Guardians of the Galaxy - despite villain dance-offs and snarky space raccoons - opens with a young Peter Quill watching his mother die of cancer of all things! Not to mention Gamora's near-death, Groot's Disney death, and other things. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has lots of witty dialogue (Cap and Black Widow work so well together) and clever bits of humor to go with the more serious tone of the story. Cap's second outing is serious in a way, in that things have gotten rougher, the world has changed, and so has Cap's. It doesn't half-heartedly pull any of that off. The Avengers has a very witty but very straightforward script that juggles quite a lot, and ends up succeeding rather than coasting by.

Marvel's sense of humor is uniquely their own, and it's just one major ingredient out of many. Marvel's films have tightly-written stories for the most part (Iron Man 2 was a troubled production, as was Thor: The Dark World) and their scripts - again - balance the different emotions, making the films enjoyable and engaging. They aren't tonally off, and some films are goofier than others. At least with something like Guardians, you know what you're in for after you see Peter Quill dance-walking on a desolate planet jamming out to "Come and Get Your Love". With Winter Soldier's opening, you know you'll get a slightly different platter of comedy with your story. And so on and so forth…

Now we get to DC. If you haven't been here before, I'll start off by saying that I absolutely love Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Yes, all three films, even the derided-on-the-Internet Dark Knight Rises. Why is that? Well, aside from the storytelling and the boldness of the series, the characters feel like characters. The tone? Well, it's no secret that Nolan aimed for something darker and perhaps a little more grim than what we saw in Tim Burton's Batman films, and certainly leagues ahead of the silliness of the WB exec-meddled Joel Schumacher films, and certainly the exact opposite of the delightfully tongue-in-cheek Adam West Batman TV series! But these films work because the darkness is used where it is needed. It's serious when it needs to be. The Joker is terrifying, the violent scenes are pretty effective, the stakes are raised, the tragic elements are used when necessary, the sad scenes are heartbreaking. Nolan's Batman films may be dark and more serious in tone, but they are not depressing or downbeat, nor are they stuck on one or two emotions. They're not hollow or pompous.

Instead, they are enthralling and exciting experiences. The action scenes are a blast, there are tons of humorous moments peppered throughout the films that are very memorable ("So that's what that feels like!", "Does it come in black?", "I'm not wearing hockey pads!") that also feel natural and not out of place, but the characters like the MCU ones showcase multiple emotions and have personalities. That way, you can connect with them and the stories. They felt like characters, and the stories were more intriguing because the tone was balanced and every emotion was used in the correct place. It's hard to balance all of that, but Nolan and crew, I feel, did so with finesse.

Now we get to Man of Steel. Christopher Nolan's involvement was said to be very minuscule, he was executive producer and co-wrote the story with David S. Goyer. Goyer handled the script alone, Zack Snyder directed… And apparently WB's suits controlled the entire production.

Man of Steel chases Nolan's lightning-in-a-bottle, but leaves out those elements I listed above that made the Dark Knight films so great. It felt like an imitation of a Nolan film rather than a genuine Nolan film, mixed with Zack Snyder movie. In Snyder/Goyer/WB's film, everyone lacks a distinctive personality. The characters often speak in bored, monotone form and normally just yak exposition. The tone? Almost every scene either suggests grimness and despair, or just importance and how serious the whole movie aspires to be. The colors are washed out in several frames, the Hans Zimmer score is more depressing than fitting, and there are few moments where any of the characters show an emotion that is not sadness, seriousness, or indifference. They worked so hard to give Superman a very troubled upbringing, but it just comes across as forced and contrived. The film keeps attempting to wear some symbolism, but it ultimately pushes it all in your face. ("See? I'm deep and serious!") The story? Jumbled flashbacks in the first half that don't present the characters well, which doesn't help. Second half is destruction and chaos, and more forced attempts to make Superman dark. Add a ton of uninteresting subplots into the mix and you get a dull misfire of a film overall.

That is not to say I dislike the whole film, I think if you were separate certain parts from the whole, they would stand out and would be pretty impressive bits of storytelling and filmmaking. I like some of the film's ideas, and I have no problem with a Superman story being more akin to The Dark Knight, but it was simply overdone. One of the few moments that wasn't all somber or grim or hyper-serious to me was the final set of minutes, where we see Clark Kent experiencing his first day at The Daily Planet. It feels like it's from a completely different film, for Hans Zimmer's score is now anything but downbeat, the mood is generally upbeat and lively, and Kent is smiling. Now if we had more scenes that felt like this (along with others like Superman's first flight) to go against some of the moodier ones to take some of the pressure off, Man of Steel would've been a much better and much more balanced film in my book. It would still have issues, such as Pa Kent's character and the final battle, but it would be a lot more bearable and *GASP* enjoyable! It would be like a good Nolan-made superhero film.

I'll compare the MCU, Nolan's Bat-films, and this movie to three people.

If the MCU were a person, he or she would be generally upbeat but not oblivious to the world (MCU films are violent, have killing and destruction, dark elements, and lots of negative things - they aren't happy happy joy joy candy-n-rainbows movies), said person would also have a great sense of humor and would overall just be a fun, very friendly, welcoming person to hang out with.

If Nolan's trilogy was a person, that person would be a little more serious and is a little more focused on the darkness of the world, but not to a point where it's annoying or gratuitous. Nolan-person would still have a sense of humor, and would smile when necessary, get sad when necessary, etc. A real down-to-Earth individual. Not to most fun in the world, but great to be around.

MoS-person would be a pretentious, over-serious, often perpetual mope who barely smiles, and takes everything so seriously. Instead of a varied, friendly conversation, you'll get a soliloquy on the meaning of life spoken to you in a monotone voice. You'll find yourself roaring in your head, "Godammit, lighten up!" And said person is only doing this because of his/her own insecurities. Who would you want to hang out with?

So now that I got my thoughts on the MCU films, Nolan's Bat-films and DCCU Film #1 out of the way, let's look at this whole "No Jokes" deal…

What do you think Warner Bros. executives mean by "No Jokes"?

Do they simply mean, "Don't try to copy Marvel's way of being comedic"? - If that's the case, I would not mind at all. Marvel Studios' sense of humor is one of many styles of humor, and if WB/DC were to copy it, I wouldn't be too pleased - their films would feel derivative. Not all humor is the same, as Nolan's Bat-films proved. This is common knowledge of course. Man of Steel had a couple jokes, but ones that were very much out of place because of the overall tone of that whole film. (I only really remember the "S" joke because it was featured in the awesome trailers for the film.) If WB is simply saying to DC's filmmakers and planners "Don't copy Marvel humor, find a new sense of humor but use it wisely", then I am A-OK with that.

For a recent blockbuster example of a more serious/less Marvel-style jokey offering, I'll use Godzilla. That film is pretty dead serious, but the film isn't trying to be serious to begin with. It just does it from the get-go, the terror is felt whenever something happens, there's lots of suspense. But once in a blue moon they squeeze in a one-liner or a joke, but it feels natural because there was considerable build-up to such jokes and these moments are not lost in excessive seriousness. No booming score, no washed out colors, no monotone voices and exposition. Godzilla to me is how you do a serious blockbuster, because that film was intriguing and the human-level suspense is what makes it so good in my eyes. It doesn't hammer you over the head, as if it were screaming "Look at me! I'm serious! I'm artistic!"

If WB/DC wants something similar to that for the DC films, fine. Give me stories that are good, not ones that desperately try to be "important" for no good reason.

They want no levity or traces of humor/joy/excitement in the films - We all assumed this is what they mean, considering Man of Steel's tone in comparison to Nolan's Bat-films and the MCU films. My Disney/comic book/entertainment-loving comrade PJ Campbell (who co-wrote some Marvel/DC articles with me) noted that Warner Bros. sold this year's Edge of Tomorrow as an entirely humorless gritty action film, when the film actually - to the surprise of many - had a strong sense of humor that bolstered the already consistent, clever script and story. It seems likely Warner Bros. is in fact against humor or anything to contradict sternness when it comes to DC films. But that just doesn't seem right, and if they do go through with this, it'll be a recipe for disaster.

I also fear that it'll extend to other films as well. All this in an attempt to stay afloat… The fact that a Dark Knight-wannabe template will be applied to these films is just depressing alone. I sincerely hope they don't impose this rule on other things, such as Fantastic Beasts. With Edge of Tomorrow being marketed the way it was, I wouldn't rule it out.

Is a mandate like this all just untrue? - Some people immediately spoke up following the spreading of the rumor, Seth Rogen most notably. He said straight to /Film's Twitter "this is bullshit" and adding that he meant he felt the whole "No Jokes" rule was not true. Maybe people are exaggerating, maybe WB's execs said something along the lines of "No overt humor" or whatever, and someone ran with it.

Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio, the cast of Batman v Superman, and others have not mentioned or made any reference to this whole "No Jokes" thing. Look at the set photos for the film, Snyder is having some fun with his Star Wars jokes and the response to the recent stolen Batmobile controversy. (The Batmobile looks absolutely amazing, by the way.) Henry Cavill participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge with the Superman costume on, Amy Adams took the challenge too. All on the set, no less. They looked like they were having a damn good time! I think Snyder wanted to make something that was at least "fun" with Man of Steel, but WB executives got in the way and forced him to make it mopey and stern.

What do I expect out of future DC Cinematic Universe films?

Experiences. Ones that will be unique, ones that'll give me a lot and what the Marvel films - which I love - won't give me.

That is all. The tone can be anything really, but I want movies that deliver a wide range of different emotions and wear their grand intentions on their sleeves. Or super suits. No preaching, no hammering things onto the audience, I want movies that will have me leaving the theater satisfied, movies that I can engage in and watch several times over. Like the MCU films, like Nolan's Bat-films, like any good film.

Man of Steel, to me, was not an experience. I didn't connect with the characters, I found that the film mired itself in seriousness, I found fault with many of the choices the film made (again, Pa Kent, Superman letting people die, etc.), I felt that it was hollow and lacking in heart. I would appreciate a grim and more serious Superman more if the characters actually had more emotions and had personalities, that way I could follow them on their journey no matter how tragic or depressing or unpleasant that journey may be. But then again, why do all the DC films have to be like that? Does Aquaman seriously call for a similar storyline that's generally grim, serious and somber? Wonder Woman? Green Lantern and Flash's team-up? I'm sorry, either this "No Jokes" thing is not real, or if it is, it seriously (pun intended) won't pan out.

I can take a mopey, serious Superman as long as others around him aren't just like that, including Batman. I don't want Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Cyborg, et al to be - personality-wise - just like this version of Kal-El. Even if they aren't, I don't want their adventures to be just like his. That's called being generic and lazy.

Only time will tell. Either someone will speak up and help us solve the mystery, or we'll get our answer in the form of Batman v Superman in less than two years…

Again, I'm game for DC making comic book films that are generally more serious in tone… But the problem is when you dial that seriousness up to 11, you're left with something that's not fun. Something that's not enjoyable, intriguing or anything of the sort… Why can't a film be those things? I'll give Man of Steel quite the pass if the future DC films don't do exactly what it did, while at the same time trying something different and moving away from the "let's copy Nolan" routine.

1 comment:

  1. My, you REALLY didn't like Man of Steel, huh? I thought it was fine--not as good as the Dark Knight Trilogy or the MCU, but not as terrible as everyone makes it out to be either.
    Also, what's your take on the idea of Disney and WB merging (it's mentioned in the link below, as one of a number of possible canididates, though I stress that no plans for a merger exist at this time)?