Sep 02 2014

Why DC/Warner’s “No Jokes” Statement is No Problem

Published by at 11:00 am under Uncategorized

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So, apparently somebody at DC/Warner handed down a rule for their upcoming slate of movies: “No Jokes.” And from what I could tell the internet just lost its freakin’ mind over it.

Well, that’s not exactly true. What I did see, however, was a small string of articles decrying this mandate as basically ridiculous, doubly so in the light of Marvel’s continued success (so-called) in making movies that are not just fun, but funny.

As you can tell from the title, I’m a witness for the defense today. I happen to think that the DC/Warner mandate is not only perfectly intelligible, but even sort of admirable (if not necessarily the BEST solution). Besides, I think the occasionally addictive wit which Marvel has become known by occasionally masks how thin their content is.

Let’s just go ahead and get this one out there: I don’t think that it’s technically possible to make a movie that contains zero actual levity, and I bet that the creatives in charge of this film series mean something a little more nuanced by the quoted two-word statement. In practice, at least.

Unless there’s been more discussion of this that I’ve missed, it seems totally within the realm of possibility that DC/Warner just wants to avoid the sort of smart-ass, winking jokes that tend to weave themselves into most Marvel — heck, into most SUPERHERO — ventures. One thinks of the insipid comic relief shoved into the supposedly-serious Winter Soldier. Whereas on the other hand most wouldn’t talk about The Dark Knight as having a bunch of jokes in it, but it’s still a witty, occasionally hilarious movie.

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But let’s say they are enforcing an act of humor prohibition over there… So what?

Saying a movie can’t be good without jokes seems to tacitly claim that the only thing that makes a movie good IS the jokes, which is just absurd. Even if this isn’t what people mean, and they’re coming at it from a place of desiring balance, I’m sure dozens of movies can be summoned to prove that other avenues are open to storytellers.

As to the concerns that this limits the options in terms of what kinds of movies DC/Warner can make… well, so does doing the Marvel thing and giving every movie a comedy subplot. It’s also, I would submit, hard to look at the history of DC adaptations and feel like what they needed was MORE humor. With the exception of Superman Returns, most of the recent attempts at laying on the laughs have been disasters (Green Lantern) or in movies that don’t really adapt the characters well (the brilliant Batman Returns).

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The natural approach for DC characters these days is to treat them as demigods. Not the relatable, hey-I-kinda-know-a-guy-like-that slant that Marvel likes to apply, but the Superman-is-basically-Jesus-and-Moses-combined thing. The whole “superheros are the new Greek mythology!” insight is cliche by now, but it’s pretty true w/r/t DC’s oeuvre. Wonder Woman’s name is Diana, for Pete’s sake.

Man of Steel sorta became the lightning rod movie for DC right now, mainly because it’s terrible, but also because it’s kind of a morose slog of a movie. It’s one of those movies that’s so relentlessly “weighty” in its tone that it honestly feels a bit weird whenever one of the characters decides to let loose a quippy one-liner. You sorta feel, in these moments, like you noticed the movie walking around a fancy party with its fly down.

What I’m saying very poorly here is that Man of Steel would have been better without any jokes at all. (And yes, it would have been even better if it actually knew what it was trying to say, about Superman or anybody else for that matter.) That doesn’t mean, mind you, that jokes are inherently stupid, just that it’s entirely possible to make a good superhero movie without them.

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Pictured: Hard evidence that jokes =/= good movie.

And DC has an interest in all this, by the way, because adopting an obviously different tone is a great way to put a distinct boundary between their movies and the ongoing Marvel project. It’s bizarre how many people reacted to this news by throwing up their arms and wondering why DC can’t just do, more or less, exactly what Marvel is doing. Why would they? Furthermore, why would we as audiences act like variety is a bad thing?

There’s this other weird element that’s come up in the passionate defense of the Marvel way. Specifically, you’ll catch comments like “Aquaman? You mean that shirtless guy who can talk to fish? Oh yeah, that’s TOTALLY serious stuff.” Basically, people suggesting that jokes can help justify asking an audience to care about a character who’s clearly a figment of some writer’s imagination, and maybe not even a particularly convincing figment at that.

On some level, I get it. These characters are literally fantastic, and that just doesn’t work for everybody. For the longest time, grown men who dressed up as animals and defeated bad guys with themed weapons were considered characters only fit for children. But that raises an uncomfortable point: Wasn’t the big struggle for decades to prove that you could take these guys seriously? Why are we now trying to say you shouldn’t?

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SIDEBAR: Also, I don’t know if people are keeping score, but most of the truly transcendent works of comic book literature have stemmed from DC, or its Vertigo label. Watchmen, Sandman, The Dark Knight Returns… it seems to me that the stories that do things like crack booklists in “Time” usually don’t get printed on Marvel presses.

What this seems like to me is exhaustion of the Dark Knight-ification of cinema. Which… has gotten really old, admittedly. I tried to rewatch Skyfall again the other week and really enjoyed it right up until the middle of that movie turns into a clone of the “Joker escapes” sequence in Nolan’s magnum opus. How many psychological villains have we trapped inside bigass aquariums at this point? Quite enough, I would think.

Still, just as thoughtlessly copying that movie is a bad thing, so is thoughtlessly complaining about people copying it. Especially this far ahead of time. We never know how this stuff is gonna turn out. Maybe all of these movies will be masterpieces. Maybe they’ll totes suck.

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Maybe, like most comic book movies, they’ll fall somewhere in between.

Whatever happens, I seriously doubt the culprit will be something as innocuous as a serious tone.





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8 responses so far

  • Robert Dean

    Man of Steel wasn’t terrible, it was so-so at worst.

    • David R

      To some degree it depends on what you mean by that. There’s some good technical filmmaking in there; action scenes are engaging and certain sequences really work on their own terms. When I say “terrible” I’m mainly referring to its thematic incoherence, and how by the end of it I’m not sure if it actually knows what it’s trying to say at all.

  • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

    I’m glad you took this one on. I was thinking about it, but I’m pretty booked at the moment. What makes this decision dumb is not that great films must have jokes, but that they are literally making a rule against jokes and handicapping their writers right off the bat. It’s good that they want to set themselves appart from Marvel, but I feel like that’s already done by the characters and stories themselves. There’s something inherently stupid about a company declaring “no jokes EVER!” when one of their most iconic characters is named the Joker.

    People communicate and relate to one another using humor all the time. It’s pretty much a social reflex, and stories are made more enjoyable and natural-feeling by including people who behave like people. Relatable characters is something people enjoy seeing. As far as the Greek Gods thing, there’s a reason that there aren’t any films starring those guys; just their more relatable human offspring. And if I remember correctly, even Sandman’s sister, Death, had a sense of humor. Then again, they should never attempt to adapt Sandman into a film. That comic is the very definition of unfilmable. Anyways, point is that while a film with no jokes is fine if it happens that way, I don’t think it’s wise to try and enforce a super-serious tone over an entire brand.

    • Vonter

      The-earthling-is-right-despite-how-much-we-us-robots-like-our-monotone-and-logical-way-of-speaking-one-can-see-an-earthling-getting-tired-after-2-hours-of-expository-dialogue-reminding-you-how-important-the-film-you-are-watching-really-is.

    • David R

      Well, like I said, I harbor a lot of personal skepticism that they mean the “no jokes” rule in the extreme sense that a lot of people seem to be taking it. It’s not the same as a ban on humor, as a concept. I mean, War of the Worlds has humor in it, technically. So do Minority Report, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan. I have no idea why I’m only listing Spielberg movies. Anyway, it’s hard to think that ANYTHING that gets a smile out of the audience will be eradicated on principle. Much easier for me to believe they’re saying they don’t want the movies to have “jokey” jokes, and this whole thing is getting taken out of context.

      And I would argue that Marvel handicaps its writers, too. So does Pixar. Pretty much any “house brand” effort is going to constrain the writers on some level. Insofar as this particular brand goes, I just watched The Terminator and didn’t really feel it had much in the way of “jokes.” If Warner’s working with a template that could allow for a movie like The Terminator, you’ll hardly catch me complaining.

      Now, do I think we’re in for a slate of movies that hit that Terminator level of brilliance? No, but again that’s has nothing to do with the tone Warner is asking for.

  • Lucas Tetrault

    Argh Disqus … my comment once again did not post.

    Long story short – I agree with you David and I appreciate the post.

  • Nick

    I thought MoS was the best superhero film since TDK. The whole point of it was to credibly show how a man would act if he was essentially a god. It was “morose” because in a battle for the survival of our planet, there is no room for levity. It was the first superhero film where I felt like their powers, and the consequence of their powers was shown realistically. And in all honesty, the quality and uniqueness of MoS is the only thing keeping any hope that BVS isn’t a total disaster alive.

  • Steve

    No problem with the “no joke” policy here. Everything Bale has ever said while donning the cowl has made me howl.

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