So, superhero movies, huh. They're pretty popular right now. Superhero movies come in all shapes and sizes, from great, to good, to fine, to bad, to terrible, to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. One aspect that it certainly is not linear throughout superhero movies is the use of humour and comic relief. Some movies use it liberally, peppering each scene with just as many one liners as punches. While, on the other hand, some movies take an option that heroes aren't allowed to have any fun whatsoever.
There are many factors to consider when examining what amount of humour is appropriate for the movie. From the tone to the target audience to the content of the source material.
I'm looking at the big four studios here (which means no kickass) Now, I'm going to go through each studio one by one, but I'm not trying to make this a Marvel vs DC thing! It's not about who I like better, or even which movies are better, this is about how the movies released by studios have implemented humour, both in a good and bad way. (Also, saying Marvel vs DC is stupid, just enjoy the films, both have good and bad things about them, shut up.)
Films to examine: Just, all the Spider-Man ones. 1 is great, 2 are pretty good, 2 are pretty bad.
Sony has the least diverse and least interesting pantheon of modern comic book movies for the sake of this investigation (not overall, just for this debate). So lets get it out of the way first...
Spider-Man is a funny character OK, he makes a lot of jokes. He, along with Iceman, Human Torch, Hawkeye and Deadpool, are the main jokers of the Marvel Comics Universe, (not the weird DC green haired guy (he's pretty great), but as in people who tell jokes often).
The Spider-Man movies have jokes, even some good ones. I'll be honest, I can't remember any specifics, I've given up on Spider-Man films given that all 5 have had THE SAME BLOODY PLOT!!! ALL OF THEM!!!
Click below to see a spoiler of every Spider-Man film...
Peter Parker is struggling to manage being Spider-Man with his on and off again girlfriend, then someone close to him becomes a villain, he overcomes his challenges and wins, then there's a funeral at the end
ALL OF THEM!!! GOD!!!
*Spider-Man 2 doesn't have a funeral, but it does have everything else.
Anyway, with one of the biggest joke-tellers in comic books today as the lead, the Spider-Man films actually don't have all that much humour. The first set were all too filled with Camp, and the second set with Angst. However, the films all take a light tone, aimed at a family audience with young kids, it's worked wonders as the films have all been profitable, even the shit ones.
However, this light tone comes from the general feel and style of the movie, rather than from actual jokes. The "amazing" series was probably closer to the comic jackass nature of the Spider-Man that comic readers love. The Spider-Man films are light, fun and sometimes brilliant, but despite the nature of the lead character, they are not even close to being the funniest Superhero films. This, to be honest is a bit of a shame, and it's something Sony never got right. I think that it's because they were too anxious to make them family friendly and get the kids in to make the character be sarcastic and a bit of a dick, which means that we got a different on screen Spider-Man. I think that the Spider-Man films could do with a few more solid jokes, there are quite a few in there, particularly in the "amazing" series (but those are mainly derived from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone's amazing chemistry than the writing). Hopefully, the Marvel influence helps the new solo Spider-Man films to become a funnier Spider-Man film than what we've seen so far.
Films to examine: The MCU, Iron Man, Captain America, Avengers, those ones.
At the beginning of the Marvel universe, Marvel Studios did not have the rights to any of their biggest comedians (except Hawkeye), however despite this, they decided to go with a very humourous tone for their early films and indeed for most of their universe. Marvel movies are funny, they're pretty damn funny. Obviously, some are better than others in the humour department, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers 1 and 2, and apparently Ant Man are standouts in terms of comedy.
The Marvel cinematic universe has brought in lots of actors with comedy experience Robert Downey Jr, Jeff "The Dude" Bridges, Ty Burrell, Kat Dennings, Sam Rockwell, Cobie Smulders, Chris O'Dowd, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper and now Paul Rudd. These guys (particularly Rudd, O'Dowd and Pratt) have been honing their comedy game for years in films and in TV shows, rarely playing anything but a comedic character. Marvel has taken these actors and played to their strengths, these are funny people and they've been given some cracking material to work with. I'm not going to make a list of jokes, but we all know that there's some truly great laughs to be had in Marvel movies.
But is this a good thing?
Well, yes and no. Iron Man in particular was lifted from good to great with the use of superb comedic touches from director Jon Favreau. Similarly Thor's use of humour gave the film a wider range and reach. Other pre-Avengers films used humour and comedy and had some good gags, but never to the effect that Iron Man and Thor did. However come Avengers, Marvel had everyone on board with their blend of comedy and action, and whilst it doesn't have the best funny lines (I'd give GOTG that nod) it does have some of the most memorable and most quotable.
I'm a person who's of the belief that there has not yet been a bad Marvel Studios film, but there have been some very forgettable, yet passable entries. In particular; Thor: The Dark World and the Iron Man sequels, but even in these films, the overarching sense of joy and fun that flows through those movies still makes them a good time to watch.
However, it's no accident that Marvel's best film is their most serious. (I think Guardians is my favourite, but not the best). Captain America: The Winter Soldier brought more questions about society, more depth and more complex character interactions than any Marvel film seen yet in the universe. All this from a pair of sitcom directors! This begins to beg the question, is humour starting to hold the Marvel movies back? Winter Soldier still had an abundance of jokes, but they felt better placed and less jarring than in other Marvel films, perhaps this was through the experience that the Russo's have with comedy.
Whether or not comedy is a good thing was also an issue for Avengers: Age of Ultron. The trailers for this movie were dark and foreboding, promising a cold and remorseless villain in Ultron. However the actual tone of the movie was noticeably different, with the same wise-cracking atmosphere as the first Avengers, and I actually think that the jokes where better, but one can't help but wonder if the dark thriller promised in the trailers would have made for a better overall product.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have Daredevil. In my opinion, the best entry into the MCU so far. This show was darker than some dark chocolate covered in black paint, with lots of bleeding and suffering and, "questions of morality". However despite this, the show still had jokes, Matt, Karen and Foggy shared a laugh occasionally, despite the dire nature of their circumstances. I think that this is key because, if you're aiming for realism, then some jokes are a must. No matter what the situation is, somebody will be making jokes, either to make light of the situation or to ease the nerves of others in need of a cheer up. In real life, people tell jokes all the time.
To finish with Marvel, I think that they have to ask themselves some hard questions about finding the balance between light and dark. The fact that the Russo brothers are directing Avengers 3 is a sign of a potential change in tone for those films (Imagine, the directors of Community is a sign of a darker tone). I think that have every single hero be a comic genius is too much, and occasionally they should put jokes aside when they want to ramp up other emotions or focus on asking questions to the audience. However, one of the best things about the Marvel Universe is how much fun it is, and they shouldn't lose that. By all means, give Paul Rudd jokes, he's a good comedian, keep Guardians funny, let Hawkeye be true to his comics counterpart. But do they have the guts to examine race or nobility seriously in Black Panther? Or to focus on devastation instead of one liners in Thor: Ragnarok?
DC (Warner Brothers)
Films to examine: The Dark Knight Trilogy, DC Cinematic Universe.
Here we have the complete opposite, the DC Cinematic Universe. Now, we've only really seen Man of Steel so far, and that was a humourless affair, and the trailers to Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad presents those movies in a similar light. Additionally, the Dark Knight Trilogy was an exercise in darkness, although occasional jokes were sprinkled in as necessary.
Here's the thing though, Batman doesn't need to tell jokes, because that's not Batman. He's gruff and constantly devastated, he's endured more heartbreak than almost any other fictional character with the death of his parents, numerous girlfriends, and about a dozen Robin's. It's fine that the Dark Knight Trilogy is somber and dark, because that's Batman. However, as I said earlier, it's not completely humourless. Catwoman in particular uses a lot of dry wit in The Dark Knight Rises, which makes sense because there are people who make jokes in dark situations, it doesn't feel out of place and it works with the character and the story.
The comedy in the Dark Knight Trilogy was appropriate because the people involved knew when a joke was a good idea, when a character would act to try to lighten the mood and when to focus on turmoil. The movies knew when to draw the line and always stayed entertaining whilst examining the internal Demons that Bruce Wayne has to face and the depravity that is Gotham city.
Man of Steel was a different story. Everything from the colour scheme to the performances to the script screamed of a movie that wanted to be dark and gritty. However, they weren't making a batman movie, they were making a Superman movie. Now, I'm not going to talk about the misunderstanding of the message of Superman in Man of Steel here, what I do want to talk about are the jokes and their use.
There were actually jokes in Man of Steel, heck some were even in the trailers, about Superman's symbol being an S and about how he's "Kinda Hot". However, these aren't great jokes, (the latter especially seeming a gratuitous bit of pandering to a female audience) you'd easily find 3 or 4 jokes better than this even among the worst of the Marvel films. But, is this a good thing?
For me, this is not the idea of a Superman film, but it's not a massive misstep. Superman, whilst he's meant to spread hope, is by no means a one liner specialist, allowing his actions an good posture to speak for him. Also, this is a Superman who is still coming to terms with who he is and what his role is in the world. However, the fact that the Dark Knight Rises had better placed and executed comedy than a Superman movie does feel a bit off.
Looking to the future, Warner Brothers have just released two trailers, about seven minutes in total from their upcoming films; Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad.
There was not one joke in these seven minutes.
Not one! Unless you count Jai Courtney (actually he'll probably be pretty good in this, role seems to suit him). Now I get that they wanted to establish a serious tone and such, but sometimes you get the feeling that these movies are trying to be dark for the sake of being dark. A movie being "dark" does not mean "devoid of humour", I mean there's a ting called black comedies! By trying to go hyper-realistic and serious they have actually gone too far to the point where it's not realistic anymore because there's nobody who's not taking it seriously. The natural jokers and irreverent personalities that exist and are found frequently in real life are yet to be seen in the Warner Brothers movies.
Maybe it's a matter of finding the right characters. Batman is always serious and Zod's no Loki in terms of light-heartedness. Perhaps they're waiting to make Green Lantern or the Flash a change up with a lighter tone. But at this stage, they seem to lack the variety in the personalities and outlook of characters. Every image that they release shows the heroes scowling with the head tilted down, in the end it stops being intimidating and starts being boring.
Obviously there's so much left to see, you can't draw the line on a film franchise after only one film, things may pan out differently. But at this stage, it seems that Warner Brothers are forgetting that people want to enjoy themselves at the movies, and whilst action and popular characters are good for that, so is humour, occasionally.
X-Men: 20th Century Fox
Films to Examine: X-Men Franchise, Fantastic Four Franchise
So often unfairly forgotten when superhero movies are discussed, Fox's X-Men franchise has being going on for nearly 15 years and is somehow stronger than ever. Ultimately the story of the X-Men franchise is a really great example of studios learning from their mistakes and pulling themselves back up from the dirt.
The X-Men films have a darker tone to those in the MCU, due to their strong themes and messages. However, the jokes are less few and far between than in Warner Brothers Movies, as they allow different members of the team to bring their different personalities to the table.
The X-Men franchise, whilst not having the quantity of jokes that Disney has, probably has some of the highest quantity. From, "You're a Dick" in X-Men 1 to, "Go f*** yourself" in First Class and even, "Who the f*** are you" in the Apocalypse teaser. The franchise its the one liners perfectly when it tries to. These moments are not only well written and acted, but well placed in scenes and indeed in the overall context of the films so that they never feel too jarring or out of place. That is if you forget, "Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning?" which is probably the worst line ever in a film (Right up there with "Not the Bees!" from the Wicker Man).
The plethora of characters allows the different personalities do develop. Wolverine is allowed to be funny because you've got Professor X being serious, Beast is allowed to pop a quick one liner in First Class because Magneto is busy trying to find himself. The franchise does a superb job at allowing their characters to contrast in their beliefs and attitudes, creating a more realistic sense of a team. Even if some of these roles (Cyclops and Iceman) are not as well displayed as in the comics.
Obviously I'm ignoring X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The cinematic equivalent of watching Donald Trump make love to your mother while he stares at you, right in the eyes. It's pretty much the worst film ever. Apart from that war montage at the beginning. This, and The Last Stand misrepresent the personalities of their characters and don't create the same contrast of jokes vs allegory that Singer handled so well in the first two films.
The spectacular turnaround led by Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class was helped to the humour brought about by the change in time period. From jokes about Charles' hair to the aforementioned Wolverine cameo. This trend continued with Singer's return to the franchise in the spectacular Days of Future Past with the inclusion of characters like Quicksilver bringing in some laughs and Hugh Jackman in fine form once again. These guys brought back the core of X-Men, which showcases the ability to switch between being a fun family film to a deeply political film filled with subtext.
The other franchise Fox owns is the Fantastic Four (seen above). The original Fantastic Four movies are pretty terrible, few good characters and even fewer great moments. One thing that was really off about the franchise was tone. Like X-Men before it, the Fantastic Four tried to blend themes by showcasing Ben Grimm's struggle to accept himself against gratuatous, "Invisible Woman is naked" scenes, plus this piece of feral animal excrement below...
What a groovy and fun scene! Except that it's terrible.
These films showed how trying to blend jokes with strong themes can be terrible if attempted by a less competent director, and perhaps shows how it's certainly a lot safer to not try to tick both boxes (Meaningful and Funny).
Trailers from the new movie Fant4stic (subtitle: this is just to stop Marvel from getting it) seem to be taking a darker and more grounded look at the super team whilst still allowing people like Johnny Storm to crack a few jokes. Hopefully this is a step in the right direction.
However, there's one ace that Fox holds that is completely unrivaled and unlike anything from the other studios...
Yes Deadpool, probably the most unique of the Superhero films coming in the next few years. Here, Fox are taking a character which is just Bat-shit insane and bringing him to the big screen in all his glory. Hopefully learning from their X-Men Origins mistakes. This promises to be the most comedic superhero movie we've ever seen, and the trailers seem to corroborate this idea. This serves as a huge road test into and may give studios more confidence with R-Rated (or MA15+ here in Australia) superhero flicks. Deadpool's sense of humour is his defining characteristic, which is not true for almost all other comic book characters, even the funniest ones. Deadpool looks to be a welcome change from the darker tone offered by Suicide Squad, Batman vs Superman and Captain America: Civil War.
Overall, I think that when they do it right, Fox do humour better than anyone. They take a quality over quantity approach to jokes and there is some truly great quality. The comedy is also exceptionally placed so as to not damage the suspension of disbelief and not to lessen any emotional or especially thematic moments in the films. Obviously, this is not true of their worst films, which unsuccessfully try to do this. But I think that more than anyone, the X-Men franchise knows how to be both gritty and fun, both meaningful and hilarious. They get the balance right.
There are many factors to consider when looking at how the major Superhero franchises have approached humour and how they have integrated it into their films. Sony tried to be light without ever being really funny in their original series before trying to darken the tone of one of the lightest characters going around. I think that the Marvel touch might enable them to really amp up the comedy which is something that Spider-Man needs, it's part of his character.
Marvel/Disney/Paramount have had some excellent comedy hits, and it's always good to be in a cinema and have a fun time, laughing along with a funny film. But, there best film is their darkest, and what does that say about the way they should make films in the future? I think that they need to know when to keep up the comedy and when to allow characters to engage in slightly less lighthearted confrontations. Whether they can provide this variety is up to them.
Warner Brothers are taking a very different approach to their superhero movies than that of Disney or Fox. Aiming for a dark and gritty tone to their movies. However, they need to know and understand their characters in order to give variety. Also, having the occasional joke is more realistic than a bunch of super serious guys, because that's what happens in life. Like Marvel, they need to be able to know when to change their trademark tone, in this case, when to allow characters to be a little bit more fun. Hopefully they let Flash or Green Lantern or somebody be a little more jolly, as it will give the Justice League more balance. However, we have only seen one film so it is definitely to early to judge.
Fox have some real stinkers in their past, but their recent years and future are looking great. In both the original and most recent X-Men films, the line between humour and message is superbly crossed and handled at the right moments so as to provide comic relief and fun, whilst not detracting from the heavy themes that the X-Men are famous and renowned for. And with Deadpool approaching, the studio now has a greater opportunity than ever to really push the boundaries of the way that comedy is used in superhero movies.
So in summary, comedy is great, it helps people feel happy. However knowing when and how it's appropriate to insert comedy into a film is the hard part and has a lot to do with the overall tone that the film is going for.
How do you think Superhero movies should use comedy? Which movies balance comedy and drama the best? Comment below with your opinions.
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