This article contains spoilers for In Bruges, Children Of Men, and Hamlet.
“You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll change your life.” – Bernard Black
As sales pitches go, ‘You’ll laugh, you’ll cry’ has long been cliché as a tagline for blockbuster emotional rollercoasters. A lack of comic and moving scenes is, therefore, not considered a selling point. Likewise, on dating profiles, people put ‘Good sense of humour’ more often than they put ‘I am intensely serious as I feel laughter would detract from my overall brand.’
People quip all the time, they speak in the form of jokes through delivery, tone, or reference points. Many of them don’t produce laughter, but they’re still jokes. Pick an article at random on Den Of Geek, and the comments will have a mix of serious and flippant points. There are going to be jokes incorporated into some of these opinions. People do that. They make jokes in the least appropriate situations. Gallows humour, and all that.
So when I type ‘the fun factor’ I mean more than zaniness or an obvious comedic bent . It’s the ability to deploy lightness where necessary. To be a totally humourless movie is a rare thing indeed, but sometimes the subject matter requires a lack of levity. Spotlight, for example, didn’t need to throw a few gags in. Sicario wasn’t without moments of lightness, but they’re texture in the moment rather than something that lingers in the memory. It uses humour as often as it needs, mainly for small character beats.
There is an assumption that ‘dark and gritty’ superhero properties don’t need comedy either. Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice was certainly accused of being, if not humourless, a movie that took itself incredibly seriously. That in itself isn’t intrinsically bad, and doesn’t preclude humour anyway as demonstrated above. Alfred’s lines were sarcastic scowls delivered with aplomb by Jeremy Irons, Batman had the occasional quip, Lex Luthor was a barrage of intense zany. It was not a film without jokes. I should add that it’s not a film I’m fond of, but I don’t think it forgot the fun factor, more catered to someone else’s idea of fun. Yet Suicide Squad was rumoured to be undergoing reshoots to add more jokes as a result of Batman V Superman. Why is a lack of jokes a big deal for some people? Why should a film outside of the comedy genre have to consider comedy?
I recently wrote about the ‘Nolanisation’ of superhero films, and how the reputation of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy perpetuates a lack of understanding as to what it was that made those films work. Also I mentioned that these films’ reputation for humourlessness is simply inaccurate, and a lot of dry and dark comedy is used, partly to lend the characters and air of realism.
Maybe there is an adaptation of Daredevil or Batman that doesn’t try to use comedy to make you like the characters – one of the main reasons for giving people funny lines in fiction – but I’m yet to see it. Even Batman V Superman tried using this technique. Comedy does not automatically negate seriousness, far from it. Consider music for a second; bands like Mogwai and The Pixies use quiet/loud dynamics to great effect, the sudden change in volume being shocking, exhilarating, and feeling all the louder for the contrast. It’s not merely the domain of alternative rock bands either, Coldplay used to use it a lot too. The same technique gets used in movies to provide bigger shocks, when something or someone you’d previously laughed at becomes deeply sad or sinister. The reverse is also true.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Children Of Men mixes up its dystopian dramatics with fart gags and tension bursting quips at the end of extended action sequences. The ‘What a day’ quip is so gloriously inappropriate after a long, violent set piece that it provokes the same kind of unbelieving laughter as an edgy Jimmy Carr/Frankie Boyle gag. It also uses Michael Caine’s character’s irreverence and fondness for fart gags to harrowing effect when his house is surrounded. Using comedy to get you to care for a character can simply be a tool that allows you to put them through the wringer later on, once you’ve ensured an audience will give a toss. It’s a way of providing a dynamic contrast between scenes, increasing the intensity by managing tonal shifts. These examples aren’t from blockbusters, but they do demonstrate what can be achieved by combining comedy with drama.
This isn’t exactly a recent discovery. Hamlet famously has the ‘To be or not to be’ speech, but it also has a scene where Hamlet has accidentally killed Polonius, and then responds to Claudius’ demands to know his whereabouts by taking the piss. When Claudius sends attendants to get Polonius’ body, Hamlet effectively shouts ‘Don’t worry, he’s not going anywhere’ after them. It’s the kind of line you can imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker delivering.
Another example of comedy not negating seriousness is that it can also make you dislike characters, or be entertained by clearly unpleasant people. In Bruges is a film that presents you with two hitmen, both of whom have a dark, potentially offensive sense of humour. They say and do terrible things, and yet despite this they remain likeable, or at least interesting. Rather than being gratuitous, this is simply setting up the need for redemption within the story, the idea that people like this can be saved and have good in them. Even if you don’t find their jokes funny, they do important plot and character work. A less extreme example of this would be Tony Stark, whose character is quip heavy and flippant right up until the point where his house gets blown up, and because he’s funny he can be occasionally unlikeable.
If you’re making a blockbuster movie then you’re going to need a lightness of touch somewhere, and not merely because of the main overriding factor of ‘Audiences really like laughing at stuff’, but simply because it makes it easier to do character work, and also to go to dark places. Marvel have, like the Dark Knight trilogy, a reputation that isn’t totally fair but also grounded in some superficial truths. Marvel films are therefore all full of extreme flippancy and all the characters smugly quip through the first two acts and then something falls out of the sky in the finale.
Consider the Hulk, though, in The Avengers. Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Bruce Banner is endearing, and has gone from threatening to funny to part of the team before the reveal that he’s tried to kill himself, only for the ‘raging green id monster’ to prevent him from doing so. The contrast from Tony Stark’s quip to the reality of being the Hulk, as well as the dialogue that’s made us like him already, ramps up the darkness in this scene. If it’s not someone we care about, or if there’s been no lightness thus far in the movie, it’s just another character doing something horrible in the midst of loads of other characters being horrible. There’s no change, there’s less shock, it’s potentially just numbing. A sense of fun, of lightness is safer. You can aim for Sicario all you want but it’s hard to pull off, so if your film aims at being consistently light and fun it’s going to be an easier watch than the equivalently good dark and moody movie. This is why more obviously jovial movies can get a hard time, and be accused of playing it safe.
Fundamentally, though, if a script is bad then no amount of enthusiasm and joie de vivre is going to save it. I may think that Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred are having a whale of a time in Silver Nemesis – and they are, it’s infectious – but that doesn’t alter the fact that the story is a mess. That’s always got to be the main focus, but it’s still worth remembering that a sense of fun isn’t simply a cowardly approach to edgy film-making, but a useful tool that can be used as part of the storytelling, and something that can get audiences on board before all hell breaks loose.