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Discuss: Where Has The Sense Of Fun Gone From Most Modern Blockbusters?

by Oliver Lyttelton
June 26, 2012 1:25 PM
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We blame Christopher Nolan, ourselves. Treating Batman in "Batman Begins" as seriously as Joel Schumacher had camply in the two previous films was an entirely necessary and brilliant move, helping to reinvent the franchise. But the success of that film, and its sequel "The Dark Knight," which made twice as much, has more than anything led executives to think that audiences want more serious takes on such material, leading to a world in which we face an edgy reboot of "Fraggle Rock." What works for Batman isn't necessarily going to work for other properties, and all too often recently, we've seen films that become the cinematic equivalent of a kid wearing his dad's suit in order to look like a grown-up. What happened to the summer blockbuster becoming a thing of joy? A thing of pleasure? Does every one of our heroes have to be tortured and angsty?

It's hard not to look at the big success story so far this year in "The Avengers," and think that audiences aren't starting to get a little tired of the darkness. One of the most refreshing things about Joss Whedon's film was just how much fun it was; bright, colorful, engaging, and thrilling, all without feeling the need to stand on a podium and demonstrate how important it was. And at the end of last year, "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" became the biggest in the franchise to date thanks in part to the playfulness and light touch of Brad Bird's direction. And a brace of other examples across the last few years can be dragged up too: "Star Trek," "Iron Man," "Sherlock Holmes," hell, even the first "Transformers," which mostly had the human touch that the other ones lacked.

And what's important to note is that we're not advocating that these tentpoles simply become gag-fests, letting movie stars lark about like they're in an "Ocean's Eleven" sequel. What's impressive about most of the films in the paragraph above -- 'Avengers,' and 'Star Trek' and 'Ghost Protocol' -- is that they manage to include life-and-death stakes even while having a blast. Just as Steven Spielberg always managed to make the serious moments of "Jaws" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "Minority Report" sit side by side with the lighter ones, Whedon can punctuate the fate-of-the-world action sequence that closes "The Avengers" with a silly moment where the Hulk punches Thor across a room, or have a curious tangent where Robert Downey Jr calls out a SHIELD underling for playing "Galaga."

Maybe it's a swing in the culture; a generation who grew up on dark, gritty comic books, and bleak video games. But we suspect that audiences are slightly tiring of dour blockbusters. We're not against the idea of blockbusters taking more serious tones, but cinema's a broad church, and the trend of these films that mistake being bleak for being important is a tiresome one. A summer movie should be a good time first and foremost, and we'd rather not have to sit through another extended action sequence that's more "Saving Private Ryan" than Club Obi-Wan. But what do you think? Are you glad that blockbusters are being taken more seriously? Or do you long for a more playful tone to go with your explosions? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Connor | June 28, 2012 4:29 PMReply

    Am I the only one that liked Cowboys & Aliens ?

  • Scott Mendelson | June 27, 2012 1:52 PMReply

    Sorry, but the idea that The Dark Knight inspired all of these dark/gritty blockbusters is basically false. With the exception of literary adaptations that were faithful to their source material, the biggest blockbusters over the last few years (Iron Man, Transformers, Star Trek, MI4, Avatar, Inception, etc.) were relatively bright, colorful, and crowd-pleasing romps (that some of them had character development and/or substance doesn't make them dark. Hell, the whole 'let's do it like Dark Knight' attitude negates the fact that both Nolan Batman films are incredibly fun and entertaining. Sure they have grim/gritty moments, but they have high energy, a playful sense of suspense, and are visually gorgeous. The only 'trick' Nolan pulled off with his Batman series is making two very good movies that audiences responded to. Brave is no more or less serious than any of the last several Pixar films, balancing character drama with slapstick as much as any other animated film. Calling Men In Black 3 'dark' is a bit of a stretch, as it's no more ponderous than Back to the Future III, it's merely more character-centric than the prior entries. Yes we are seeing a surge of somewhat gloomy would-be tentpoles, but most of them aren't exactly burning up the box office (Snow White and the Huntsman is only staying alive due to Kristen Stewart's fanbase). The films that think they are aping The Dark Knight purely by emphasizing grim seriousness and/or realism are both missing the point and dooming themselves to box office failure.

    Yes I wrote about this last month -

  • Chris138 | June 27, 2012 1:00 AMReply

    I know a lot of people claim that Nolan's Batman movies are too serious, but I think part of what makes them so terrific is how they balance the serious and lighter moments, even if the humor is often the dry kind. I think those films work both as merely entertainment as well as something a bit more than that, if you choose to do so.

    All of the copycats don't know how to balance these things and the movies often end up becoming too self-serious without any sense of fun. I suppose you could also say that the seriousness in these kinds of movies is somewhat of a reflection of our current times. Or maybe I'm just looking into it too deeply? Who knows.

  • John | June 26, 2012 10:05 PMReply

    the big studio system is made up of a bunch of copycats. one thing hits, the next several similar projects try and cash-in. there's no story here. the pendulum will sway back soon enough after "the avengers" and others. i'm sure we'll see many "bridesmaids" clones now too since they have figured out "people like movies that are funny and star women". cha-ching!

    what are the trends in true independent cinema? that's the story i'd be more interested in discussing.

  • Michael | June 27, 2012 1:22 AM

    Trends in independent cinema? Regionalism. The end.

  • Mike | June 26, 2012 9:19 PMReply

    I have to say though, picking Deathly Hallows, The Hunger Games & Rise of the Planet of the Apes as too dour to be enjoyable is offbase, those movies sell (or have earned with the buildup in HP's case) their darkness & still manage to be fun. DH should not be made a light romp when it's about a kid that has to sacrifice his life and/or become a killer for the sake of everyone else (HG's rather like that except it's only for the sake of 1 person I suppose) and please explain to me how Hunger Games could be made lighter? It's a movie about a dystopia that keeps it's people in line by having kids murder each other on live television. Either it's made the way they did or it's not made at all.

  • Mike | June 26, 2012 9:16 PMReply

    I'm going to say that there's plenty of room for both types, but in the case of movies that are simply a gimmick premise, the seriousness ruins any chance at popularity or enjoyment that film had. Last year it was Cowboys & Aliens, this year it's Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, from the titles alone the audience should know they're going in for a tongue-in-cheek b-movie & yet both films were made with the bizarro notion that they should be made with gravitas and no jokes (this is only from what I've heard about AB:VH but definitely true of C&A).

  • Xian | June 26, 2012 4:41 PMReply

    JACQUES DEMOLAY... you nailed it. What works in the dark and mostly grim world of DC's Batman (save for his less intense Silver Age comic book days) does not necessarily work for every comic book or non-comics character. The Playlist article points out that Spielberg's summer blockbusters contained a nearly perfect mix of human pathos, light comedy, intense (but not morbid or sadistic) action and violence, and a strong sense of fun. While I personally dig Christopher Nolan's work and his supreme achievement in bringing Batman back from the camp styling of previous films post-Burton (and, even then, Burton's films captured an element of camp that wouldn't be out of place on the old 60s TV series), and I certainly appreciate the consistency in tone he's brought his trilogy of films, it's not necessary for every director (*cough* Zack Snyder *cough*) to bring an "edge" to comic book material. Nolan was just a great match for the twisted vigilante that is Batman and cesspool of crime and corruption that is Gotham. Bringing a director of intelligence to challenging comic book material with many facets could have just as easily resulted in an Ang Lee/Hulk redux.

  • Andy | June 26, 2012 4:06 PMReply

    After TDK, there was a trend to make dark and serious movies. After The Avengers, maybe there is another trend to make movies with a lot of jokes and humour. 4 or 5 years later, maybe Oliver Lyttelton will write an article with the title "Discuss: Where Has The Darkness and Seriousness Gone From Most Modern Blockbusters?"

  • AS | June 26, 2012 3:31 PMReply

    So you're angry because movies have gotten more serious and less campy.... we should be celebrating not complaining.

  • ben | June 27, 2012 12:25 PM

    Why? We're talking about movies depicting people in rubber suits flying around fighting over-the-top bad guys in colorful costumes, and U.S. presidents killing fuckin Confederate vampires. I think filmmakers should at least acknowledge, not ignore, the inherent campiness of what they're putting onscreen.

  • Christopher Bell | June 26, 2012 3:16 PMReply

    Sort of what Sly said, noting Tarantino, and I agree and will add that blockbusters should take notice from Korean cinema, or even Japanese cinema (particularly Sono w/ "Cold Fish") -- can be disturbing, thrilling, funny, all in one scene. Such brilliant mix of tones.

  • Jacques DeMolay | June 26, 2012 3:06 PMReply

    I don't think it's really possible or appropriate to ask such a question. The tone of the movie should depend on what the movie is going for. Yes, the overly-serious and somber tone made Snow White and the Huntsman a dreadfully boring affair, but at the same time, those qualities are exactly what made Nolan's Batman movies, Casino Royale, and other such films so great.

    Take something like John Carter, on the other hand, or even Cowboys and Aliens, and the problem becomes clear: the studios/writers/directors/whoever are shoe-horning in that Nolan-esque deadly seriousness into movies where it doesn't belong. The juxtaposition of a super-serious Comic Book movie worked so damn well for Nolan's Batman because of two things: 1) the previous films devolved so far into campiness and cheese that the starkly opposite approach was just refreshing and unexpected, and 2) Batman is a pretty dark character with a lot of good built-in room for going dark and serious. It took not one, but both of those factors to make it a success, and you need look no further for proof than Superman Returns. That film was basically an attempt at doing for Superman what BB did for Batman - yet it mostly didn't work. The previous Superman movies had gone far too campy much like Schumacher's Batman films, so THAT element was very much present - but Superman is not like Batman in that he works in a dark, serious setting. There's nothing about his character's image that really warrants a Nolan-esque treatment.

    Simply put, Batman movies can be deadly serious and work great because that tone is appropriate and makes sense for the content and themes of the Batman character. Superman needs to be more like Whedon's the Avengers, and indeed MOST comic book movies should be more like the Avengers or Iron Man 1 in tone than like Batman Begins.

    And as others have pointed out, you have to know your audience and keep that factor in mind too - something like John Carter really needs to skew younger and more fun and inviting to achieve mass appeal and reap box office rewards. Making the average blockbuster too serious or too dark is definitely a stupid, knee-jerk reaction to the success of Nolan's Batman films, but they're not using any logic in choosing which movies to apply it to.

    On the other hand, compare the two Snow White movies this year: one was basically the Dark Knight treatment, while the other was broad, family-friendly comedy. Neither really seemed to connect with audiences, and The Playlist didn't really seem thrilled with either film in your reviews, so that would seem to indicate that the somberness of Snow&Huntsman&Co. wasn't necessarily the only or biggest sticking point.

    Simply put, SOME movies should be fun and light-hearted, SOME should be serious and dark. And you can't fairly say that Summer Blockbusters should be one, while arthouse and awards season movies should be the other. We should have a mix of all types. Hollywood just needs to learn when it's appropriate to go dark, and when FUN is still the best way to go.

  • Andy | June 26, 2012 4:03 PM

    I totally agree with you. If Iron Man movie went Nolan's way, people would ask: "Seriously? Another billionaire with a dark tone fight for justice?"

  • jtp | June 26, 2012 2:50 PMReply

    I don't understand this argument. Why blame Chris Nolan for making his Batman films dark? The Batman comic books are all dark and gritty. It is not suppose to be slapstick funny. Nolan was just creating the world that we read in those comic books.

  • Andy | June 26, 2012 3:41 PM

    You do not read well. He says "What works for Batman isn't necessarily going to work for other properties". The problem is not TDK. The problem is that many movies tried to imitate the serious tone of TDK.

  • Katie Walsh | June 26, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    I was just discussing this with Drew Taylor the other day: John Carter really suffered from this "serious blockbuster" expectation, in execution, marketing and reception. My biggest problem with JC is that it is hideously boring and completely earnest in its ridiculous dialogue. If it had even a touch of camp or self-reflexivity, it would have been fun. Also, JC is a KIDS MOVIE. If everyone involved, production, marketing, audiences, etc. had embraced that, I don't think it would have been such a stink bomb. Make it and market it as a kid's adventure and then adults won't be as offended by how stupid it is.

    WOOLA 4 EVA.

  • Kevin | June 26, 2012 3:02 PM

    Serious or not, the problems with "John Carter" began with page one of the script.

  • Michael | June 26, 2012 2:42 PMReply

    I think Nolan is definitely to blame in this specific instance, but with that I'd also blame this on a wider trend of trying to make 'escapism' less escapist. The U.S.A. has a long-running disdain for all things frivolous and silly and pleasurable, which is rooted in our very Protestant adoration of hard work and personal responsibility. From pop music and disco to comic books and video games to the very notion of sexuality itself, we are deeply ashamed of our desires and have been working hard to add 'serious' dimensions to these base pastimes. Otherwise we can't justify our fascination with them. Nolan was just the first filmmaker to really successfully cash in on our long-held beliefs about entertainment needing to somehow transcend 'mere' entertainment, and now everyone's trying to replicate his success. And you know what? They're onto something. We Americans have an extremely schizophrenic attitude toward entertainment. We love it but we're ashamed to admit we love it (where do you think the phrase 'guilty pleasure' comes from? Could any other country give birth to such a loathesome phrase?). That's why American TV shows only rack up acclaim if they're dark and serious (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) and The Dark Knight was considered a serious Oscar contender. We have to throw in darkness and pretension if we deign to allow ourselves to be entertained. Anything less and we're just another member of the unwashed masses, undiscriminating junkies awaiting our next fix. But this attitude is more than a little self-serving and it's one reason I'm glad The Avengers seems to be breaking the mold (and one of the reasons I'm not looking forward to TDKR's inevitable market dominance). God forbid we actually enjoy the sight of ubermenschen decked out in primary colors destroying evil alien monsters.

  • lane | June 26, 2012 2:37 PMReply

    couldn't agree more with this article. Citing Avengers, Star Trek, and Ghost Protocol is perfect. all the movies you're citing as failing have generally bad directors, all the movies you're citing as succeeding have generally good directors. tone is key and shouldn't be decided by a trend, but by the material.

  • sly | June 26, 2012 2:22 PMReply

    I always say it - this world needs more Quentin Tarantino. When I went to see Inglourious Basterds, audience was laughing, thrilled, melted, disgusted... you dont see this combined in a single movie very often (if I dont count crazy over the top bollywood blockbusterds haha). Basterds were my best experience in theatre so far.

  • COKE | June 26, 2012 2:15 PMReply

    I'm 19 years old and I love this dark blockbuster stuff...
    I mean, one of the reasons I didn't like Avengers that much was because it felt too much fun and gleeful for a super-hero movie.
    Yeah , blame it on Christopher Nolan .

    What about 007 franchise? Let's be honest, Cassino Royale is much better than all the films with Pierce Brosnan beacuse of it's darker and grittier tone.

    If I want to laugh during a movie I'll watch a comedy one. I like this new "tendency" very,very much.

  • Cde. | June 26, 2012 10:56 PM

    "If I want to laugh during a movie I'll watch a comedy one."
    What a depressing mentality.

  • Mike | June 26, 2012 9:23 PM

    Casino Royale's tone & style came from the success of the Bourne films.

  • COKE | June 26, 2012 5:07 PM

    "it felt too much fun and gleeful for a super-hero movie." lol, that's bizarre.

    lol I think I did not put it in a good way.
    Let me give you an example : remember that scene where Thor says that everyone should respect Loki beacuse after all he is still son of Odin?
    Right after that someone claims that he killed a lot of people and Thor adds : he is adopted.

    That scene for me is a example of the movie`s biggest problem , trying to make a joke every time. Thor (the comic book hero) would never say something like that.
    Iron man making jokes all the time? Ok that is totally acceptable but Thor is different. He does take himself seriously (just watch his movie) and for me getting him out of character just to make a joke is wrong.

    ANDY I agree with you,balance is the key.
    Take again Casino Royale as an example. It has action moments , good dialogue scenes, fine screenplay and even some funny parts. For me thats the right equation.

  • Andy | June 26, 2012 3:58 PM

    I think we need a balance between movies with a good sense of humour like The Avengers, 21 Jump Street, Ghost Protocol, etc, and movies with the dark tone like The Dark Knight, Harry Potter, New 007 movies, etc.

    People can watch neither dark and serious movies nor movies with the humour all the times.

    If The Avengers had tried to imitate the atmosphere of Nolan's movies. it would have failed miserably.

  • AS | June 26, 2012 3:34 PM

    I'm with you 100%.

  • d | June 26, 2012 2:29 PM

    "it felt too much fun and gleeful for a super-hero movie." lol, that's bizarre.

  • brown | June 26, 2012 2:12 PMReply

    Brave could have been aided by a little more seriousness. Too many zany, stakeless action sequences for my taste.

  • Glass | June 26, 2012 1:53 PMReply

    Not to sound like Tobias Funke, but I attribute most of the collective nihilism in movies and music to 9/11. And weirdly, I think The Bourne Supremacy was the first franchise movie that went for a totally unsmiling, dour tone and found huge success.

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