Why DC's serious 'Superman v. Batman' may give Marvel the big-screen edge
Last week was about the fifth time I've heard that there is a mandate at Warner Bros. regarding any of the DC superhero films in development, and it's very simple and direct and to the point.
It would seem like a crazy rule to set for an entire series of films. How can you know what the tone is for every story you'll be telling in a series before you've even started telling it? The thing is, DC has taken a few stabs at establishing this larger universe on film, and they've gotten smacked down for everything that hasn't had Batman in it. "Man Of Steel" made money, and I'm certainly not the only person to like the film. I may be one of its more ardent defenders, but I'm not alone. I think you'd have a far harder time finding someone to defend "Green Lantern," the studio's other big attempt at launching one of the core Justice League characters with a film franchise of his own.
One thing you'd have to grant "Green Lantern," whatever your feelings about it as a movie, is that they've got lots of jokes in that movie. They are resolutely unafraid to make jokes. Green Lantern/Hal Jordan/Ryan Reynolds (there is no discernible difference between these three identities) makes jokes throughout the film, and the trailer featured plenty of them. There is a wise-ass attitude to a good chunk of the film that is very much on purpose. Every one of the guys they looked at to play the lead in the film had to be as well-liked as a comic performer as an action star. That's not a long list, but it seems like the exact sweet spot that studios are constantly searching for. Look at the reaction to Chris Pratt now that he's made the jump to a lead in the biggest film of the summer. He's the guy studios dream of when they dream of new young movie stars. A sense of humor seems like an essential club to have in the golf bag, right?
Not according to Warner/DC. Not after "Green Lantern."
Now, to be fair, no one has directly connected those dots for me. But something has caused this shift in the overall editorial voice of the DC superhero movies. There's got to be a point behind an edict as broad and as specific as that.
Here's why I have trouble believing any studio would do that. Even in the most serious of mainstream movies, some of the most memorable moments are those points where they let off steam, where a laugh is used to punctuate. In adventure movies especially, a laugh can make the difference between a movie people like and a movie people love. The right laugh can make a movie a classic. Think of that beat in "Raiders" where Indy shoots the swordsman. That laugh is not just a huge rush of relief in the middle of a harrowing and thrilling action set piece, but it's also a character-defining moment for Indiana Jones. George Lucas may have his qualms about whether or not Han Solo shot first, but Indy's no dummy; of course he's going to shoot first. That's why Indiana Jones is still alive.
Laughter also allows audiences to swallow some of the more ridiculous things that they're asked to buy into with modern event films. Suspension of disbelief is always a sort of a magic trick if you're dealing with aliens or superheroes, but you add a talking raccoon with a fetish for giant guns and a talking tree creature that is meant to be the emotional heart of the film, and you'd better figure out exactly how to embrace that absurdity, make the jokes that win the audience over, and use that humor to smuggle in the sentiment. If you've got an audience laughing, you've got them willing to accept things.
DC is going to try for some big characters with Batman and Wonder Woman and The Flash and Cyborg and Aquaman, and one thing that's always seemed true to me of DC comics versus Marvel is tone. DC treats their superhero characters more like gods, fighting battles that we simply can't comprehend or participate in because of our natures. Even Batman, who has no superpowers, is treated like he is a legend, an icon that he's nurtured as a symbol of fear. Marvel characters are more flawed, more human, struggling to live human lives while still dealing with their powers and their responsibility to the world. And if DC finds a way to try to play their films on this larger, operatic, hero-as-myth level storytelling, I'd be excited to see that. I'd want to see that.
But if "No Jokes" is a reaction to "Green Lantern," an edict that comes from a desire to simply do things differently from Marvel, it could really paint DC's movies into a corner, and I would imagine that it's giving some filmmakers pause in considering whether or not they'd want to make a DC movie.
While I thought there were some gentle pokes at genre fans in "Man Of Steel," there's nothing in that film that I'd call a joke. There were set-ups and punch-lines in the Nolan Batman films, but I wouldn't really describe those movies as "funny" in any significant way. "Green Lantern" is the one film where they really gave a character permission to talk shit in the Tony Stark manner, fast and funny and self-aware, and where audiences seemed to love it when Robert Downey Jr. did it, they did not seem as smitten with Reynolds.
Instead of worrying about something as drastic as "No Jokes," the studio should look at how important it is to get a consistent sense of tone in one of these movies. The reason "Guardians" manages to get away with some of its more outrageous moments is because it tells us right up front, during that great opening title sequence, that this is going to be fun, and it's going to be irreverent, and it's not going to take everything deadly serious. There are serious moments in the film, heartfelt moments, sad moments, ridiculous moments, and big action mayhem moments. The film does all sorts of different things, but it always seems ready to wink and dance away, and that's what we expect from it. "Green Lantern" didn't fail because it was funny; it failed because it had no idea what kind of film it was. Martin Campbell goes for big broad comedy in some scenes, and he's got a decent visual wit. He stages some of the training stuff well, and he tries to give Oa a sense of wonder. There are images in the film that I feel like he comes very close to pulling off, but when he fumbles it, he really fumbles it, and the bad guy in the movie is a disaster.
Parallax is, for lack of an easier visual description, a cloud made of poop and mouths. It is a singularly unpleasant visual bad guy, and when he transforms Peter Sarsgaard, he makes him into a repellent big-headed horror movie bad guy. Considering how light some of the sequences are, like when Hal uses his powers to make a giant green race track to save someone, the villains feel ill-considered, like they're from another film.
Consistency is key. You can make jokes, and in films about Superman and Batman and Green Lantern, it seems perfectly okay to make jokes because these are giant cultural icons. We have complicated relationships with these characters because of the ways we are exposed to them and which versions we read or watch or see first, and nobody has the exact same checklist of what makes Superman Superman or what makes Batman Batman. Trying to hold everyone making films for the studio to one somewhat rigid, joyless tone would be creative suicide.
So I'm going to put the question out there, and as we all talk to Zack Snyder or David Goyer or any of the actors working on these characters, I'd love to hear an answer, a firm denial. Is it true? Is DC really so gun-shy that they've laid this rule down for all of their films?
Is it really a "No Jokes" future we have to look forward to?
And if so, do you think Marvel feels like they've already won in terms of audience sympathy if this is really how things are supposed to move forward?
Man, I'm curious to get a look at "Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice" on March 25, 2016.