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

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

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.
 

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Comments

Connor

Am I the only one that liked Cowboys & Aliens ?

Scott Mendelson

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 – http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com/2012/05/unconventional-wisdom-so-chris-nolans.html

Chris138

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

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.

Mike

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Bell

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

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.

jtp

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.

Katie Walsh

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.

Michael

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

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

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

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.

brown

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

Glass

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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