This past weekend, a film named "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" opened. And there were a number of surprising things about the movie: it wasn't an elaborate practical joke; it was greenlit with the expectation that people would want to see it and it seems the smart and capable cast and crew members didn't have anything better to do. But most surpising of all is the way in which a film with the words Abraham, Lincoln, Vampire and Hunter, in that order, in the title, is executed in such a relentlessly grim, humorless manner. Decades ago, it would have been the stuff of B-movies, and yet writer Seth Grahame-Smith and director Timur Bekmambetov play it almost entirely with a straight face.
Pairing a silly title (which every time we saw the trailer with an audience, would elicit big laughs) with a deadly serious approach does not, it would appear, seem to have paid at the box office, with the film opening to a decidedly disappointing $16 million by Sunday, and critics mostly slaughtered the film (our own reviewer was, in fairness, one of the exceptions). Now, we're not saying it would have done any better with a more tongue-in-cheek approach — "Snakes On A Plane" proved long ago that people might be amused by a joke title, but won't necessarily turn up to see it regardless of how silly the film is. But it does serve as the latest indicator of a steady trend across not only this summer, but also the last few years. Simply put, blockbusters are for the most part less fun than they used to be.
Think of some of the biggest grossing films of the last year or so: "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon," "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Pt. 2," "The Hunger Games," "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes." All dark, grim and pretty low in laughs. And not just laughs, but any real sense of enjoyment; the action sequences, at least in the first two, were harrowing more than they were thrilling, absent the gags and beats that generally make action sequences memorable. And this year has already seen a number of movies — "John Carter," "Battleship," "Wrath Of The Titans" and "Snow White And The Huntsman" come to mind most immediately — which also seem to take themselves a little too seriously. Even Pixar's "Brave" feels more serious-minded than we've come to expect from the company.
Does the fairy tale of Snow White really need to be treated like a big-budget version of "Game Of Thrones?" Does a movie based on a board game have to be so chest-beating and unaware of its own ridiculousness? Does a proposition as silly as "Cowboys & Aliens" really benefit from being treated like a John Ford picture? Even "Men In Black 3" is actually pretty light on laughs, compared to other installments, preferring to focus on an angsty backstory that ties together the central characters.
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.