Everything from Daredevil, through Watchmen (admittedly a determinedly dark piece of source material), Green Lantern (a film crying out for a more flippant acknowledgement of its own silliness) and including this year’s Man of Steel trumpeted its own grittiness and seriousness, which is fine, but somewhere along the line these films forgot to have fun. Now it of course goes without saying that nowhere is it cast in stone that just because a film is based on a comic book, it must therefore be light-hearted. Serious-minded films can just as well spring from the comic books of Stan Lee as from the novels of Cormac McCarthy, but just because Nolan and his clan decide to go with a rooted verisimilitude, doesn’t mean there is no room any more for a bit of lightness alongside the dark.
Interestingly, Spider-man seems to the be one of the few properties that has, at least tonally, stuck to its guns. The black suit / Venom storyline of Spider-man 3 may have injected a little darkness into Peter Parker’s character, but it was a storyline mined for laughs (remember him dancing down the street? Still makes me want to eat my own face) as much as for seriousness. The Amazing Spider-man has its darker moments (the death of Uncle Ben, his emptiness following the loss of his parents) but as a character in his own right, Spider-man is back to the flippancy, wit and sarcasm that we enjoyed so much from comics and cartoon series.
What marked out The Avengers as not just a stellar success, but a true trend-bucker, was that it was not afraid to be fun. All hail the mighty Joss Whedon, for not just making the film so well balanced and entertaining, but for introducing genuinely high-stakes and compelling villainy, without the whole thing collapsing under the weight of its own portentousness. Consider something as key as the murder of Agent Coulson, which is violent and upsetting, yet Loki also features in undeniably comic moments such as his failure to “turn” Stark and his battering at the hands of Hulk. He is not made into a ridiculous, flippant character – that would undermine the threat – but Whedon is determined to have fun with these characters.
What then are we to make of the decisions being made as Marvel transitions, post-Avengers? Thor poked great fun at its own pomposity and Captain America was a generally light-hearted old-fashioned romp. The Avengers carried this on, but since then we seem to be back-tracking. Captain America: The Winter Soldier looks to be going grittier again and Thor has laid its cards on the table with its subtitle, The Dark World. There look to be a few lighter moments in the trailers, but it seems to be very serious again. Iron Man 3 gave Stark plenty of quips, but the thread of the story that leaves him wrestling with panic attacks, anxiety and sleepless nights feels like a retrograde step, especially given how richly the public rewarded the tonal choices of The Avengers. That it enjoyed a greater box-office haul than any of Dark Knight trilogy is not to be taken lightly. But then, Iron Man 3 was rewarded with enormous box office receipts, so perhaps the tonal blend is just right?
With X-Men, the Wolverine spin-offs have generally been pretty angsty and dour, whereas First Class managed to leaven the weightier matters (murder, the Holocaust, nuclear war) with some fun, whether it was Wolverine’s sweary cameo, Xavier being all “groovy” or Banshee falling out of a window. Again, we’ll have to see where Days of Future Past pitches itself and let’s not forget that in the absurdly crowded market place that is 2015, we’ll see how gloomy Superman vs Batman proves to be.
In the meantime, we will have to see where Marvel’s Phase 2 takes us. Thor and Captain America are up next, then Spiderman 2. Much as I do love a good serious film, many of these franchises have been at their most enjoyable when they bring the fun. Let’s hope they continue to bring it.