Drew McWeeny at HitFix is reporting that no fewer than five sources have told him that Warner Bros. has a strict “No jokes” rule for all DC superhero movies in development. McWeeny posits that the rule is likely a reaction to the failure of Green Lantern, a terrible movie that was chock-full of jokes. It seems likely that the huge success of the very, very serious Dark Knight Trilogy also played a role in the formulation of the No Jokes rule, but I think they have learned the wrong lesson from their failures and successes.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy took itself very seriously, exploring fear and pain and chaos. Batman Begins was an exciting departure from the lighter, brighter superhero movies we were used to, and the sequels plunged us even deeper into the darkness. The Dark Knight was probably the best, most important superhero movie that has ever been made, and I don’t see anyone topping it anytime soon. Nolan had important ideas to explore, and he used Batman to do it. But the lesson Warner Bros should have learned isn’t “All superhero movies should be dark and self-important.” It’s “Figure out what you’re trying to say and let that guide the tone.” Looking at Green Lantern, the movie wasn’t bad because it was funny. It was bad because it didn’t know what kind of movie it was trying to be.
Let’s take a look at Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, which seems likely to have already set the tone for all of the upcoming DC superhero movies. It was very successful. But one of the biggest (and most valid) complaints about the movie was that it was no fun, and Superman movies should be fun. Unlike Bruce Wayne, whose parents were murdered right in front of him and then grew up mostly alone in the hellscape of Gotham (He had Alfred, I know, but that doesn’t make up for it), Clark Kent was adopted as an infant by loving parents and grew up in an idyllic small town. Those don’t create equal amounts of angst. By playing only the negative aspects of Clark’s superpowers and recasting Superman as a friendless outsider with a fearmonger of a dad, Snyder robbed the hero of all his light. Yes, his powers make him different, but isn’t there some joy in flying? Isn’t there some fun to had in super speed? At the very least, there should have been witty banter in the Daily Planet newsroom, but that place was joyless as well.
What’s really surprising is that the movies Man of Steel so desperately wanted be—The Dark Knight Trilogy—actually had some jokes. In addition to being terrifying, the Joker was, well, a joker, even if his punchlines tended to be horrifying. There was wit and humor in those movies without having characters crack wise. The Scarecrow’s return as the Judge in The Dark Knight Rises was a textbook example of adding humor without sacrificing tone. Small, funny moments can relieve a little tension and drive the audience’s emotional response. At the Man of Steel screening I went to there was only one laugh line, and that came from a random, disposable character.
The point of this article isn’t to bash Man of Steel (I actually thought it was okay). The point is Batman and Superman aren’t interchangeable, and you shouldn’t try to make a Batman-type movie about Superman. It doesn’t work. And Aquaman is different from Superman, and Green Lantern is different from Aquaman, and the Flash is different from Green Lantern. Movies about them should be tonally different, and that might mean that some of the movies have jokes, and some don’t. DC’s archnemesis, Marvel, has been really great at recognizing those differences in their own characters. They make superhero movies about Iron Man and high fantasy/sci-fi movies about Thor and wartime/political thrillers about Captain America and then they bring them all together into The Avengers, and it all works. They are all set in the same universe without being the same.
Even more ironic is that in the one area where DC kicks Marvel’s ass creatively, TV, they let the character set the tone. DC Entertainment is launching four new shows this year, and none of them are alike. Gotham is set in Gotham City, so it’s dark and Lt. Gordon broods and everyone is jaded and there are few jokes. The Flash is fun and hopeful, but not without pathos, because Barry Allen is optimistic and cute and sincere. Constantine is dark and brooding with sardonic humor. iZombie is a very pretty, very funny coming of age dramedy with a lot of brain eating. Their existing, fantastic, TV show, Arrow, is pretty dark, but not without hope, and Felicity uses humor as a crutch in a way that feels unforced.
Basically, don’t try to cram a bunch of idiosyncratic characters into the same box. Some of them need jokes. And if you’re going to cast Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, let him be a little funny. He can do funny and menacing, I promise. Watch The Double if you don’t believe me. And don’t set out draconian rules for stories you haven’t written yet, DC/Warner Bros. You don’t want to paint yourself into a corner.
Read McWeeny's whole piece here. It's really good.