On the Importance of Tone in Superhero Films: Grimdark Manpain, Action-Packed Excitement, and the Marketing of ‘BvS: Dawn of Justice’

When I went to see Deadpool last week, a third and final trailer for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice played during the previews. It was markedly different from the previous two trailers that had been released. In place of the overwrought orchestral overture, there was a fun and fast-paced rock score. In place of the epic and unending posturing and manpain, there were thrills and chills, witty banter, and hints of sexiness. As the trailer ended, I leaned over to my friend and said, “Looks like Warner Bros.’ve decided to take a new tack; I guess the previous approach wasn’t working.” This was a more charitable response than my reaction to the second trailer (helpless laughter in the face of such super-serious, alpha male nonsense) had been.

Thus it wasn’t a surprise to me to read (earlier this week) that Warner Brothers may be getting cold feet about its plan for a Justice League film and the tone of its superhero films in general.

[Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny has] suggested that the studio is “worried” about the performance of next month’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. “[This movie is starting to scare them, and it’s scaring them because they’re showing it to people now.] People are actually laying eyes on the film, and the response has not been exactly what I think they wanted.”

The debate over comic book (movie) tone is an ongoing one. On the one hand, you have audiences that vastly prefer a more adult approach to the mythopoetics of superhero storytelling. On the other hand, you have audiences that are sick to death of the emphasis on so-called grimdark story lines. And these audience categories are neither uniform nor static.

The intense focus on grimdark in Man of Steel (and its sequel) makes sense in the wake of the success—both critical and commercial—of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but it’s a focus that may have failed to take into account the shifting landscape of the superhero film genre (1). Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises were released in 2005, 2008, and 2012, respectively, and those dates are significant. In 2005, Nolan’s approach was both a novelty in the wake of more-lighthearted superhero fare like X-Men (2000), X2 (2002), and Spider-Man (2002) and a nostalgic callback to the sophisticated and much-beloved Batman films of Tim Burton (2). In 2008, the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises had foundered on their third releases and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was only just getting up and running. In 2012, however, the final film in Nolan’s trilogy came out alongside Marvel’s ‘The Avengers,’ a film that was a significant game-changer for the superhero genre.

The success of The Avengers didn’t mean that comic book films could no longer take on serious subject matter—MCU sequels like Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example, took on some very serious subjects—but it did signal that audiences were receptive to a more optimistic tone than Man of Steel. The heroes took on grave threats, but they did it with self-awareness, aplomb, and success. Man of Steel, released one year after The Avengers, suffered somewhat by comparison in terms of its gritty dramatics, wanton disregard for collateral damage, and a denouement that projected an emotional sense of failure in the face of supposed victory. The release of Guardians of the Galaxy the year after that demonstrated that audiences were a) receptive to far more off-the-wall concepts than had been previously surmised and b) open to a return to the lighthearted and somewhat comedic approaches to superhero filmmaking that had been popular in the early 2000s. But Batman vs Superman was already in production by that point, and Deadpool—the film that Warner Bros. probably fears BvS will suffer in comparison to—was still only a gleam in Ryan Reynolds’ eye.

This is not to say that it’s too late for Warner Bros. to turn things around for their DC properties. Trailers for the upcoming Suicide Squad adaptation suggest that the film has found a sweet spot between serious subject matter and satirical tone, and behind the scenes rumors of the studio’s concern indicate that Warner Bros. may retool their future properties to take an approach that is more in keeping with the current zeitgeist. It’s not even to say that Batman vs Superman won’t turn out to be wildly successful in spite of its darker touch. There’s no denying that Warner Bros. has done an about-face on their marketing of the movie, though, and this about-face may ultimately extend to the franchise as a whole.

Notes:
1) I think it’s an approach that also fails to take into account the deft balance that Nolan struck between gritty reality and fanciful optimism. The most powerful moment in The Dark Knight (and perhaps in the entirely trilogy) comes when a ship full of criminals collectively agrees to make a sacrifice for the welfare of a ship full of children and Joker is proved wrong in his cynical assumptions about human nature, and the ending of The Dark Knight Rises is fundamentally hopeful, though thoroughly ambiguous in the manner of most Nolan films.
2) In my opinion, Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) remains the definitive adult superhero film. It is a film that was profoundly ahead of its time in terms of its take on heroism and villainy, in terms of its treatment of the female protagonist (who I would argue is in fact the main character of the film), and in terms of its critique of happily-ever-after resolutions.

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