“A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Sometimes in life it’s the only weapon we have.” Roger Rabbit made this salient point about show business in 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and it’s a fundamental truth that rings sharper in today’s age of blockbuster dominance. The brooding antihero and the despondent energy he permeates is no longer appealing to mainstream audiences. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Trilogy” was a singular success because of its auteur director, a visionary who corrals moviegoers yearning for event-like theatrical experiences. Ironically, its most acclaimed entertainment factor is Heath Ledger as the Joker, a deranged anarchist who revels in responding to Batman’s cold justice with gleeful inhibition. In the end, sobering superhero masculinity turned out to be the real joke after all.
When DC attempted to canonize their brand to compete against Marvel, they reapplied Nolan’s gritty formula to catastrophic results. Audiences were hammered with ultra-serious stakes that completely derailed the enjoyment factor they had been anticipating. Superman and Batman were not just breaking their code of employing non-lethal force, but the resolution to their incredulous conflict was so sanctimoniously handled that it wound up earning more guffaws than empathy. Replicating Frank Miller’s downbeat essence and Nolan’s cold milieu to cacophonous rejection exhibited just how out of touch Warner Bros was with contemporary viewers.
By comparison, Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe bounced with confidence, each entry effortless and unassuming in its adventure pitch. Marvel president Kevin Feige and his team mapped out a four-phase plan that spanned over a decade, grossed billions of dollars, and never induced fatigue from its consumers. The secret weapon? Humor.
It wasn’t until 20th Century Fox’s R-rated “Deadpool” that comedy and the superhero genre could be intrinsically linked in both marketing and narrative execution. Unless you’re a diehard purveyor of detail, most won’t be able to tell you plot specifications from any MCU installment, much less the two “Deadpool” outings. What makes the MCU a return investment is the infectious witty banter between the cast of A-listers, or in “Deadpool’s” case the absurdist fourth-wall comicality of its star Ryan Reynolds. When writers allow those characters to experience these common human emotions, audiences can subsequently connect with them on a personal level, making their dire circumstances carry weight rather than be held up by anesthetized exposition.
The DCEU team finally figured this out two years ago, first with Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” and then with James Wan’s “Aquaman.” Whether it be Diana Prince’s awkward yet hysterical cultural misunderstanding of “sleeping together” with Steve Trevor, or Arthur Curry’s cheeky bravado that mugs for the camera, their respective natural humor is a way of breaking the ice and inviting audiences into these heroes’ intimate lives. The most important lesson Warner Bros learned was that moviegoers prefer to take joy in these characters rather than be bogged down in the doom and gloom of their fictional cause.
Humor as a sustainable attracting force goes beyond superhero movies. Two recent examples of genre pictures relying on humor to garner staggering box office are Colin Trevorrow’s “Jurassic World” and Jordan Peele’s “Us.” The former was unapologetic in its unrealistic action sequences, opting for fun instead of an overstuffed story. With numerous nods to Spielberg – especially the carefree abandon of being chased without the gravity of death looming over – Trevorrow was able to amass record success by easing audiences back into a franchise rather than demand their loyalty.
As for Jordan Peele’s “Us,” humor is used as way to therapeutically relieve tension for his onscreen characters and the off-screen witnessing crowd. This is especially evident when Winston Duke’s Gabe Wilson confronts the doppelganger family in the shadowy driveway. The performance and script are meant to evoke nervous laughter, as that is our natural response to something confusing or alarming, and yet we want to appear as though we’re comprehending the situation. That prefaced humor makes the next moment all the more terrifying: the family disperses in unknown directions, but the intimation is they’ve answered the call of warning with an intrusion offense. The sporadic beats of humor allow audiences to catch their breath, bask proudly in the growing capability of the besieged Wilson family, and ultimately permits them to react when bewildered to a horrifying degree.