Ever wonder what makes the The Avengers movies different from the Transformers movies? Why the Internet will herald Joss Whedon and Iron Man as the second and third coming while calling for Michael Bay and Sam Witwicky to be drawn and quartered? All of these movies are overplotted action spectacles culminating in an orgy of CGI destruction.
The answer comes down to one line from Clint “Hawkeye” Barton: “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.”
The Avengers movies specifically, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, have earned a greater respect in geekdom than their tentpole counterparts because they understand how to utilize humor. Yes, Tony Stark regularly cracks wise, but all of the characters have had decent zingers throughout their cinematic histories. Who would’ve thought that Thor would be genuinely funny? But he is, and it’s essential. He is a man who is literally from a different world and is more or less completely unaware of our culture and customs. But he is aware of this aspect of his character, which makes him fun. We’re not laughing at Thor for being a fish out of water and talking funny, we’re laughing with Thor for accepting this part of about himself and not really caring about changing. (And did any other scene in Thor: The Dark World get half the reaction of this?)
Guardians of the Galaxy took humor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a whole new level by being the first movie in the interconnected universe you could legitimately label a comedy with action elements rather than the other way around. And it’s hard to imagine that movie succeeding if it didn’t. It was by far the most experimental and strange film Marvel has done to date, and could have easily devolved into camp had it not been for the sure and steady hand of writer-director James Gunn. The success of Guardians of the Galaxy over other recent space opera bombs like Jupiter Ascending and John Carter came in large part because of Gunn and his ability not to take the premise too seriously. The movie realized and acknowledged its own ridiculousness, and chose to have fun with that creative license.
It had fun embracing its own silliness, so we did too. Really a pretty simple philosophy when you think about it – act as though you are a particular sort of thing, and that’s the way people will be given to perceiving you. Yet by the same token, Guardians never seemed to be making fun of or acting “above” its own premise (ahem) which would push the movie into overly self-aware camp. Guardians achieved the delicate balance necessary for us to believe in a giant tree creature and talking raccoon, and it became one of the MCU megafranchise’s biggest hits despite having virtually no name recognition prior to its release.
Yet all of these examples only touch on why comedy is essential to these tentpole features. These movies all feature some world ending catastrophe that is beyond our immediate scope of comprehension. They’re dealing on an absurdist scale, and we need something relatably human. A movie that acknowledges the weirdness of an apocalyptic scenario instead of acting above it or being so serious as not to acknowledge it is instantly more personable. This is especially important when you realize that the continued existence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe revolves around us wanting to spend the next decade of our lives with it and its characters. Would you want to spend time with someone who is perpetually morose, stoic, and prone to grandstanding? Of course not. Humor brings these godlike, incomprehensibly powerful characters down to “our” level in a way that helps us connect with them rather than turn them into buffoons.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Saga is a franchise that understood this remarkably well but rarely gets credit for it. Yes. Batman was funny. Most of the characters were, actually. Nolan approached comedy in a different way than Marvel has – more subtly – but it was equally effective.
Nolan let his characters be real people, and the humor was a lot more character-based. In many ways, The Dark Knight was almost as funny as the Red and Gold Billionaire. Like this:
Unfortunately, some superhero movies have completely missed the point and took the absolute wrong lesson from Batman (*cough* The Amazing Spider-Man franchise.). However, no superhero movie got more heat for its utter lack of humor than Man of Steel, and rightfully so. This was the movie’s biggest failing – not that an untrained, untested Superman didn’t take time out of his first major superfight to save every kitten, or that he killed Zod (which he also did in the heralded Superman II). Even though I actually like Snyder film for its ambition, if not necessarily its execution, it’s hard to argue in support of the utter joylessness of the affair. (It should also be noted that Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns had a similar penchant for melodrama in place of a Superman people can get behind.)
While I understand that a big point of the movie was Clark feeling alone and finding himself, that’s barely an excuse. The point of humor in a serious drama is to occasionally diffuse tension before it reaches the point of absurdity. That’s what this scene is going for, maybe, but tonally it’s a bit of a swing and miss (not to mention an utter rarity in the film):
But the biggest question mark, as it has been for years, is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This movie is the official start of the DC Cinematic Universe, and Warner Bros./DC has a lot to do to catch up with Disney/Marvel. Man of Steel was more like the pilot episode of a TV series that got a series order. While it set up a lot of the universe, the mixed public response has definitely left it to BvS to bring viewers back into the fold (seemingly by bringing every DC character they can think of). This film is responsible for righting a ship that cannot be re-re-rebooted again. Hopefully, humor (more in the Nolan vein than the Whedon one) will be part of the fix.
Otherwise, do they bleed [market share]?