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December 11, 2012

"Man of Steel" Filmmakers Pretty Sure You Want A Dark, Gritty Superman With Lots of Drama

Trailer 1 and Trailer 2.

Those mournfully blue stormy skies are exactly what I think of when I think of Superman. And the bearded Clark Kent, hitchhiking along a cold, dreary-skied road? It works for Superman just like it worked for John Rambo in First Blood.And there's no difference in the tone of those two movies.

By the way, did aliens move Smallville, Kansas to the Seattle area? What the hell's with the Rainy Pacific Northwest Right On the Ocean crap?

I was just realizing that maybe I'm not a fan of specific stories so much as a specific tone. Among my all time favorite fun-type movies are these:

The first 70s Three Musketeers movie

The first two Superman movies

The first and third Indiana Jones movies

The first three (real) Star Wars movies

If you notice anything connecting them-- besides the fact that they're all action-adventure fantasies, often with some light sci-fi theming -- it's that they share the same tone. The tone is specific: It's light and humorous, but not truly comical, and certainly not campy (like the Schumacher Batman films) nor self-spoofing (like the later Roger Moore James Bond films).

It's just serious enough to not subvert its own premises/fantasy elements, but no more serious than that. They maintain just enough seriously to permit a buy-in, but don't demand you take them any more serious than that.

The comedy element is light comedy (as opposed to full comedy, where any joke is permitted, as comedy is the main thrust). "Light comedy" is a splash of comedy. Because you don't want to subvert the other elements, you can't get ridiculous or completely silly.

Meanwhile the drama is also light drama. Yes, we care whether Indy and his Dad reconnect... but this isn't Sophie's Choice, here. The dramatic element is pretty fluffy. No one's going to be too worried, and no one's going to be crying here.

And the romance? All the romance is... yes, light romance. It's not the main part of the movie, but there is usually a romantic element, generally handled as light comedy.

The specific genre elements are themselves light. Star Wars isn't a deep science-fiction movie; its science-fiction elements are superficial. So's the historical aspect of Three Musketeers, and Indiana Jones.

The word "light" seems to be coming up a lot here. Not campy, and not self-subverting. The humor isn't silly enough to cripple your ability to buy-in to the fantasy premise (and start thinking, "I should be an archeologist, I think"). But the drama isn't so heavy that you have to buy into it, invest in it emotionally, much more than saying "Gee I hope Indy kills that guy."

It's a tone that works, and has worked, and, I suspect, will keep working. The National Treasure movies-- which I liked, and made money -- had this tone. The Marvel-produced superhero movies tend to have this tone, more or less exactly. I suppose part of the reason the other elements (comedy, drama, and romance) are so light is to make room for, and not distract from, the action-adventure element, which is the main draw. The human touches of comedy, drama, and romance are kept light so they exist -- so they're there, for the audience's enjoyment, and to give characters three full dimensions so you can really experience them as flesh and blood human beings one and a half enjoyable dimensions so you can invest slightly in them as they perform feats of derring do.

Movies of this genre that depart from this specific tone tend to do poorly at the box office and disappoint fans. The Schumacher movies were far too silly and campy (especially the second, which kill the Batman franchise, at least until it was resurrected), as were the last two Superman films in the 80s. The Bryan Singer Superman film, on the other hand, was too portentous and self-consciously "epic" to be any kind of fun at all. It also featured, incongruously, the real-life problem of a fatherless children (and a father who'd left his son to be raise by another man).

The Nolan Batman movies (at least the last two) are exceptions to this rule (at least this suggested rule, I mean), as they were pretty dark and "serious." (I guess they were -- I never got how a movie could be all that serious when it's about Batman.)

The Star Wars prequels suffered from all-over-the-map tones, as the Plinkett review noted.

I suppose this "Rule" might be sort of obvious, and it might not be a case of people deciding to depart from the rule, as much as it is that people simply make bad movies and hence fail the rule, because the "light comedy" turns out to be dreadful comedy and the "light drama" turns out to be boredom and the "light romance" turns out to be characters who are chemistry-free ciphers. I guess the Green Lantern movie attempted this tone, for example, but just failed at it, as it failed at everything.

Still, seems to me to be something to shoot for in this kind of movie, if you want people to spend money on it and actually like it. The template, at least for tone, for what is expected and permitted, exists, has numerous exemplars to copy, and works most of the time it's executed (or at least executed competently).

So, this new Superman. It's dark and moody, without bright colors and without clear photography. I feel like I'm looking at a new Jason Bourne movie, where Treadstone agents get a transfusion of Kryptonian blood. It's "gritty," I guess, and "relevant to our times" (btw, do we want to be reminded of our current dreary and horrible times in escapist movies?), and we're supposed to, I guess, really take Superman's emotional journey seriously.

I just don't see it working. Seems too ambitious, and worse than that, the movie seems to be fighting against its own essence. Like it doesn't know what it is, or, worse yet, it knows what it is but doesn't like what it is so is contriving a different personality, wearing a mask.

Come on, it's Superman. The Big Blue Boy Scout, Last Son of Krypton, the Man of Tomorrow. Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Why are we running away from the actual identity of the property?

Now That I Think About It: This tone is tried all the time. It's just botched a lot. Wild Wild West was this tone-- it just sucked at all elements of it. The Men in Black movies were this tone -- but only the first one was good.

All of the X-Men movies tried this tone -- but only three of the five were good.

So, it doesn't always work. It doesn't work automatically. A bad movie will tank even with this tone.

Still, I have to question the decision to depart from it in a Superman film. Movies that deviate from this tone fail more often than those that stick with it.


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posted by Ace at 04:03 PM

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