Film News

No Laughing Matter: How Warner Bros. May Have Learned the Wrong Lesson from The Dark Knight & Green Lantern

Imagine you are some higher up at Warner Bros., likely with a job that, as Troy from Community would put it, “Looks from a distance like you do nothing.”  In the past year, there has been some pretty significant re-shuffling of the senior executive ranks.  Jeff Rovinov is out, replaced by the trio of Sue Kroll (marketing/distribution), Greg Silverman (development/production), and Toby Emmerich (president of New Line Cinema), all of whom report directly to WB Ceo Kevin Tsujihara.  The studio has finished at either No. 1 or 2 in global market share for nine of the past 10 years, but it has done so mostly because of franchises like Harry Potter and the Dark Knight trilogy.  Those are gone now, as will soon be the case for New Line’s new Hobbit trilogy.  JK Rowling’s Harry Potter spin-off trilogy is still a couple years away as are any future LEGO movies.  You need new franchises, and the safest bet in the current market is to go with comic book movies.  However, outside of the Christopher Nolan Batman films you’ve only made 2 superhero movies, both the complete opposite of each other in tone.

The one (Green Lantern) that was meant to be self-aware and fun, ala Iron Man, bombed so hard the studio had to take a write-off north of $80 million.  The one (Man of Steel) that was unrelentingly dour with a monochromatic production design and super-saturated visuals along with mindless action more than doubled its $225m budget in worldwide gross and has brought in an additional $100m from home video.  Which one of those two are you most going to try and emulate in the future?

It’s a no-brainer, right?  Just make something more like the movie that actually made money.

Now imagine you’re Drew McWeeny, a legendary movie blogger for HitFlix.com.  You keep hearing around town that WB has instituted a new policy for any of its DC superhero films in development: “No jokes.”  You’re hearing this at the same time that Marvel has made Guardians of the Galaxy arguably its funniest film ever, riding the laughs to the top of the summer movie box office (at least domestically).  What else are you supposed to think other than, “WTF is WB thinking with this ‘No jokes’ crap?”

Groot Guardians Final Shot
There may be more joy in this shot of Groot dancing in Guardians of the Galaxy than in all of the upcoming WB comic book movies combined

That’s pretty much the scene that went down over the past couple of days, as Drew shared his thoughts about the supposed “No jokes” edict, and it was quickly picked up by the rest of the internet.  The response has been mostly of the, “Sweet Jesus, Warner Bros. is even more clueless about making superhero movies than I thought” variety.  Yes, there are jokes galore throughout Green Lantern and very few in Man of Steel (the truckers big rig wrapped around the tree, “He’s hot,” “Welcome to the planet,” that might be it), but if the only lesson WB learned from Green Lantern was that clearly they’re just not good at jokes then it is safe to fear that all 10 of those movies they have scheduled through 2020 are doomed.   Green Lantern simply failed as a movie, with a poor script, lame villain, uninspired direction, bad special effects, etc.  Taking the jokes out of it wouldn’t have instantly turned it into a hit.

What’s basically happening here is that the company (Marvel) known for its more light-hearted stories and relatable characters is making fun movies whereas the one (DC) known for its god-like protagonists is apparently going to make deadly serious movies.  That seems consistent with their respective brand identities, and although I can’t truly believe that WB means there are to be no jokes whatsoever something with more laughs than Man of Steel may be out of the question.

Thor Chest
He just looks like a god, doesn’t he?

I shudder to think, though, what Thor would have looked like if it had been made under WB’s “no jokes” policy.  Yes, Thor is a Marvel character, but his status as a literal god could so easily spill over into DC territory.  Kenneth Brannagh understood that in order for the audience to accept a character like that he had to be humbled and made the butt of several jokes.  So, really, the movie only gets good once Thor is banished to Earth to begin the hilarious fish out of water section of the story (who could forget him throwing down the cup of coffee at the diner and instantly demanding, “Another!”).  This, to me, has always stood out as the movie WB should be looking at to figure out how to adapt its over-powered characters to the screen.

Instead, they remain blinded by The Dark Knight.  As Forbes’ Scott Mendelson recently argued:

It is no secret that studios often learn the wrong lessons from their hit movies. After Titanic, we didn’t get sweeping female-centric films but rather the usual testosterone fests with young-love subplots awkwardly inserted and emphasized in the marketing. Hollywood saw the success of Avatar and only saw its 3D effects and in turn decided to release as much 3D product into theaters as possible. Hollywood saw the success of Inception and didn’t think “Gee, audiences enjoy high-quality original science-fiction star vehicles” but rather thought “Gee, let’s remake Total Recall!”

And now we’ve lost track of the number of “gritty” and “realistic” Batman Begins/Dark Knight-inspired reboots (007, Snow White and the Huntsman, The Amazing Spider-Man, the upcoming Fantastic Four, and even a gritty upcoming origin story for Santa Claus…Santa Claus!!!).  For better or worse, though, that’s apparently going to continue being WB’s approach to the material, and when it works it’s brilliant.  Even Joss Whedon thinks so, recently telling a Comic-Con panel:

I think that Marvel and WB/DC have kind of different agendas, different ways of approaching the superhero genre, and the ethos of the thing, and the esthetic. They go very dark and serious and sometimes it works amazingly, and Marvel tends to be a little lighter. Both have movies that I adore, and both have movies that I’m like… [pained expression]. Including bits of my own.  I would not want DC to do what Marvel does. I like what they do when they get it right. When you get a Heath Ledger, and Batman Begins, and those things that really grip you. That’s something nobody else is doing, and I like it. I want them to do what they’re doing.

What often gets overlooked with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is that they do actually have their funny moments (much of what The Joker does is darkly funny, case in point, the magically disappearing pencil).  As Mendelson put it, “They may have dealt in periodically dark subject matter and had characters who were burdened by their psychosis, but the films were alive with energy and humor.  They featured not just funny moments but characters who themselves had a sense of humor.” They each deal with dour subject matter without being overwhelmingly dour films, and that’s usually lost on those seeking to emulate Nolan’s style.  That’s okay if it’s just for one new movie every couple of years, but if this is truly WB’s mantra then it sounds like we can expect 10 different iterations of Man of Steel through 2020.  If so, it seems unlikely that all 10 of them will even get made because audiences will likely tire of the unrelenting sameness of the material.

SR XI
WB’s somber approach even goes back to Superman Returns, which came out one year after Batman Begins

But, whoa, that’s way down the road. I occasionally have to remind myself that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn’t actually come out until the summer of 2016, basically 2 years from now.  Here we are fretting over it, and it is literally years away whereas stuff like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fantastic Four, and Ant-Man are all due up next year.  Even so, it’s jarring just how negatively the internet has reacted to pretty much every single news story about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice so far.  It’s the new Amazing Spider-Man 2, i.e., the comic book movie written off as a giant failure long before its actual release.

To begin with, some people would prefer an actual Man of Steel sequel before a team-up movie.  Most everyone has struggled with the idea of Ben Affleck as Batman or Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor or Gal Gadot as WOnder Woman, although fans are often wrong about casting and each of those choices have their ardent defenders.  That title (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is just….ugh.  It seems like every other week a new Justice League member is rumored to have been thrown into the movie, and all the official promotional material from the film suggests more of a monochromatic universe than a cinematic one (I stole that joke from this fellow blogger).  Worst of all, it’s still being directed by Zack Snyder, and he’s already got the gig to direct Justice League.  Beyond Batman v Superman we’ve come to learn that the studio is pitting two writers against each other to see who can make the best Aquaman script, which the actual screenwriters of the world have all reacted to with equal parts empathy for the writers and hostility for the studio.

Yet I’ll be there opening weekend for the exact same reason the crowd at Comic-Con couldn’t stop itself from crying out in joy when they saw Batman and Superman together on screen in the clip from the film officially premiere at the convention: it’s Batman and Superman!

Batman Vs. Superman is due March 25, 2016.

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