The Very Belated Tone And Theme Post

Back. Survived exams, survived life so far. Here to talk about superheroes again.

We left off last time with me talking about the Avengers movie, and promising to have more to say on the subject of superhero movies in general. I do indeed have more to say on this subject, it’s just a shame it’s taken me so long to get to it.

Tone and theme, then. Everyone’s been talking about the new superhero movies and their grimdarkness, for better or worse. On one hand, taking superhero movies “seriously” (scare quotes clarified soon) let us make movies like The Dark Knight, which has sort of become the Internet’s poster child for a superhero movie that set out to make a thematic point. On the other hand, a lot of people (using my friends as a sample, so YMMV) go into superhero movies expecting a fun romp through cheesy costumes and hammish acting. Which, let’s face it, isn’t a bad thing – look at some of the gems that have come out of Batman: The Animated Series and the Spiderman cartoons, as the Internet loves to remind us with .gifs.

Personally, I’m all for anything that takes a fun romp and gives it a purpose to exist, or at least is conscious of the messages it sends to the audience. Hence the scare quotes earlier – there is a huge, huge difference between ‘takes itself seriously’ and ‘grimdark’. Takes itself seriously, for the purposes of this blog, indicates that a movie knows it is important enough to have something big to say about society or life or humanity or whatever. And like any good adult, it knows how to make a joke, including the appropriate time and place for joking. Grimdark is that form of immature maturity that video games are accused of (and often exemplify) – all moody and dark and Adult Themes without any real justification. A teenager starting drama among their friends because it makes them feel like they’re the centre of attention, and just because the drama happens to involve romance, they’re ‘mature’ problems.

And, as you could probably guess from my posts, I love it when superhero movies take themselves seriously. I honestly and sincerely love that our society is getting to the point where we can accept that even action movies and movies based on comic books and the schlockiest, pulpiest spec-fic can have something to say and say it well, while still involving laser battles IN SPACE. Fun and Meaningful aren’t mutually exclusive.

What I’m a little more leery of is the pressure to Always Mean Things and Always Be Deep. This, I think, is where the Avengers starts to fall down. Age of Ultron was a really fun movie, and had some amazing character moments. But it, like the first Avengers, like The Dark Knight Rises, like so many other movies coming out right now with three-hour runtimes and billion-dollar special effects budgets, tried to do way too much. They had so many characters and tried to be Meaningful with all of them. Of course, some were brought to the fore, but still, there were too many other things going on at the same time, and background events and characters got muddled, lost or just plain didn’t get enough screentime for the amount of backstory they were supposed to be portraying.

And here is the pitfall of being Meaningful: You need to pare down your themes. One main theme is best, two is manageable, three plus? Well, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing. Not every character can have their own theme. They can all have their own stories, that’s for damn sure, but they can’t all have their own theme to go with it – you need to tie them into an overarching theme. In Avengers, you have Hulk and Black Widow exploring humanity vs monster, Iron Man exploring PTSD and road to hell being paved in good intentions, Clint exploring what it means to be family/a team, and Thor off doing something. I guess Ultron and The Vision are tying into Humanity vs Monster, but they also have a whole heap of Evolution themes colouring them, and they’re never properly linked to Banner and Romanov’s ideas because Banner and Romanov is a subplot at best in terms of the overarching story. And then the minor villains go off and have a sub-theme about loss and revenge, and that’s just too much. It feels like they tried to have a main theme (humanity vs monster), but felt like they had to continue the themes from 1 (family/teamwork) and then they had characters who were practically already built to explore other themes, so they threw those in as well. It just kind of ended up a godawful mess.

I think, personally, the superhero movie genre needs one more growth spurt. It’s started to take itself seriously, which is great, and it’s learned it can be funny and zany while addressing serious issues, mostly, which is great, but now it needs to learn how to really focus its subtext to get the most out of one theme, rather than the wasteful scattergun approach. That’s when, I think, we’ll start seeing some truly amazing movies from the genre.

(Hint: A recent movie that knows how to work diverse character arcs into an overarching theme, add to the Mad Max: Fury Road love. There is a movie that knows what it’s doing. Also, check out the anime Monster (70-something episodes, approximately 7 times the runtime of Avengers: AoU, at least three or four times the number of characters, only one major theme. Used it and used it well) and Code Geass (a bit shorter than Monster, fewer characters, but again: One main theme. Used it, stuck to it, tied everything to it. Lost its plotting mind in the end, but its themes stayed completely on track). Plus, I’m sure there are many others – feel free to drop titles in the comments.)

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