When I walked out of Thor: Ragnarok last weekend I had a smile on my face. I also remembered that I had the same smile on my face from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider -Man: Homecoming, and Wonder Woman earlier this year. The grin came from the fact that these movies had significant comedic moments added in with the typical heroics. It has been something sorely lacking from some of the bigger popcorn movies of the last few years which embrace a kind of steely-eyed nihilism paired with fatal bon mots.
I prefer a little fun with my popcorn because I am going to the theatre to escape into fantasy for a couple hours. If I want to be emotionally challenged there are any number of art house movies which will speak about serious topics unflinchingly; without a stitch of spandex in sight.
This past year has seen laughter become as big a part of the equation as action. Which was how it was in the beginning of the modern superhero revival begun with 1978’s Superman: The Movie and would continue into the sequel two years later. In fact, the comedic tone of characters like Lex Luthor were the things which were heatedly debated down at the comic shop. I would always be quick to point out that Star Wars was also played mostly for laughs.
When we entered the age of Computer Generated Images (CGI) the ability to bring almost any superhero to the screen became possible which has seen an acceleration of these stories being filmed. There can be a sameness to the “Hero’s Journey” which is the basic plot device a comic book movie generally follows with a few extra bells and whistles to make it stand apart. Humor would be the device but too much humor could also be detrimental. The best example is the series of Batman movies from 1989 through 2012.
Batman made his return to the movie theatre with two films by director Tim Burton in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns. With Michael Keaton under the cowl Mr. Burton had a natural comedian to deliver his style of sardonic humor to great success. Which would lead to the next two movies directed by Joel Schumacher doubling down on the funny quotient with 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin. There was a clear demarcation between both sets of movies. Mr. Burton found his humor in the inherent comedy of a millionaire playboy playing superhero. Mr. Schumacher found his comedy from slapstick humor which didn’t serve the character at all. By the time Batman & Robin tried to embrace the funny it lost the plot amidst the punchlines.
In a reaction to the declining box office when Batman would return in the series of three movies directed by Christopher Nolan the funny was almost completely squashed. While Mr. Nolan’s trilogy is at the top of the superhero genre in the movies it isn’t funny; ever.
Which leads to the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008 with the release of Iron Man. Iron Man would come out a couple months before The Dark Knight would. The powers that be at Marvel decided they wanted to have a sense of humor and in no small part due to the charisma of actor Robert Downey Jr. they found the right balance of humor and superhero earnestness. Even then Iron Man kept the laughs dialed down.
It would take six years for them to find the right vehicle to get primarily funny again. Director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy defined the modern formula for being funny in a superhero movie. It came naturally out of the characters and the silliness of the situations. That success would lead to even more humor being injected into the Marvel Cinematic Universe which reaches its height with two of their most iconic heroes, Thor and Hulk, in the comic book version of a buddy cop movie. Director Taika Waititi, of Thor: Ragnarok, knowingly winks at the audience from beginning to end as the God of Thunder and the Green Giant save the day.
The DC version of the movie universe finally found its sense of humor with Wonder Woman which again flowed out of the reaction of normal people to the presence of a goddess. Director Patty Jenkins directed with heart and humor in equal quantities. With the involvement of Joss Whedon in the reshoots of the upcoming Justice League I am hopeful for more of this approach than the previous gritty to the core versions we had been presented with because I’ve realized I want some laughs with my saving the world, or universe.