With Wonder Woman and Justice League coming up, fans are unsure about how the studio will balance out grittiness with humor. Can DC move away from Marvel’s approach while still being tied to its expectations?
Marvel kicked off the superhero craze with Iron Man in 2008, and began a new cinematic era. Recently, head of Marvel Kevin Feige explained the importance of humor in making people connect with superhero stories:
“I believe that laughter is the way you hook the audience. Then you can scare them (…) Humor is the secret into the audience’s other ranges of emotions.”
It’s the humor, self-awareness and surprising poignancy of the MCU that makes it great, from the original Avengers to the upcoming Defenders. Comedic moments succeed in making all the characters relatable and real, even when the situations they are in are completely alien to reality.
For a long time, DC’s big superhero success was Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which had a mood that was the complete opposite of comedy. All three movies were intense dramas, and immediately set a high standard for character development in superhero films. And once the trilogy ended, screenwriter (and brother) Jonathan Nolan said “I kind of feel like that chapter for us is closed.”
But after Marvel’s amazing success, DC didn’t want to be left behind, and kicked off the DC Cinematic Universe; a huge franchise that has since constantly struggled to keep up with the MCU. Before an audience of expectant fans, DC failed to perform, while Marvel released triumph after triumph.
Early on, rumors stated that DC actually set a “No jokes” policy for its superhero movies, even though fans said that they preferred the humor of the MCU, which helped balance out the emotional scenes.
Man of Steel had a bad start, with mixed reviews, fans loving it for its take on Superman’s heroism, and hating it for its dourness. Seemingly unshaken, DC released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice… only to have it unanimously destroyed by critics. It was too dark, too monotonous, too pointless — people were tired of gritty drama.
Suicide Squad seemed to be a response to this criticism, switching gears and going in the complete opposite direction. It was designed to be the epitome of dark humor — although rumors said that it was initially just dark, and much of the humor appeared during reshoots. It might have pulled the franchise out of its slump, if it hadn’t been so terribly executed. Through lazy writing and catastrophically bad editing, plot and depth were tragically sacrificed in favor of laughs… and even those didn’t manage to save the movie.
Now, in the face of failure, DC seems to be floundering as it tries to find a perfect balance. The latest Justice League trailer is extremely focused on the humor, almost jarringly so when looking back at the darkness of Batman v Superman.
“It’s fun, it’s funny. It’s different,” Gal Gadot said about Justice League (and even the trailer for Wonder Woman had a few funny moments.) Ben Affleck agrees: “It’s a world where superheroes exist, so there’s comedy in trying to work with other people. People trying to accomplish goals together is the root of all great comedy in my view.”
Geoff Jones, head of DC comics, asserted that DC movies will have “heart, humor, and heroics,” — the first two of which have been absent in some way or another from the previous films. However, Zack Snyder suggests that the comedy/darkness dynamic is more skewed towards the “darkness” in the upcoming movies, because of its ties to death:
“Death is darker than, say, resurrection or team-building. It’s just a darker concept, like when you’re dealing with “Dark Knight [Returns]” or “Death of Superman,” those kinds of ideas. As opposed to, “Oh, let’s build a team and fight the bad guy!” It’s a different energy.”
So, no, we’re not getting a jaunty, comedic adventure with Justice League; that would be disingenuous to the story, after Batman v Superman was so overtly dark. To suddenly make things funny again after Superman has died would just seem out of place.
But with all the comedy showcased in the trailers, and humor being promised to us after a series of films where it was distinctly lacking… it feels like DC isn’t really sure where this is going, either. Is it even possible for an ensemble movie, which is in itself already a complicated project, to succeed where solo movies failed?
Imitating Marvel’s approach isn’t a solution, as much as both the fans and the studio may hope. We aren’t going to theaters hoping that DC serves us the MCU — we want to see something original. People may have bashed Batman v Superman for being too dark, but that wasn’t what made the movie bad. Everyone loved Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy’s darkness. No one complained when Logan killed off almost all of our favorite characters.
It’s not the humor we crave — we just want a good movie; one that’s made its mind up about what genre it wants to be.
It’s a difficult area to navigate. Being years behind Marvel in franchise-building, it’s only natural that fans already have high expectations for DC. While the MCU had time to build a series of movies and carefully craft characters before grouping them for Avengers, DC jumped straight into it, and suffered because of its ambition. And Marvel had the advantage that most of its characters had never appeared in live-action films before; DC doesn’t enjoy that luxury. It also doesn’t help that bad press has surrounded almost every one of DC’s latest movies.
It seems like a lose-lose situation. DC has to find its footing before it’s too late, and it gets swept away by the powerful current of the MCU.