Ever heard of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd? The title character is a barber who was exiled from London because a judge was sexually interested in his wife. Fifteen years later, he returns to a London populated by such characters as a creepy beggar woman who osciallates between politely begging for money and soliciting random men on the street. His old barber shop is inhabited by a similarly crazy old woman: the pie-maker Mrs. Lovett, who bounces back and forth between being disgusted and enthused at the prospect of using stray cats in pies. Todd’s daughter, Johanna, is being held prisoner by the evil judge, who alternately stares at her through a hole in the wall and whips himself out of guilt. Antony, a sailor that Todd came to London with, happens by Johanna’s window and immediately becomes obsessed with her. When Todd reestablishes his business above Mrs. Lovett’s store, they quickly take in a mentally retarded barber’s assistant named Toby, who is also insane by the end of the show. Oh, and Johanna ends up killing someone.
After the first sentence, I wrote the above description on one principle: mention nothing that was included in Tim Burton’s 2007 film. Mrs. Lovett’s insanity and Antony’s obsession were toned down considerably through acting and direction style. The sexually solicitations, autoflagellation, mental retardation, and innocents turned murderous or insane were all cut.
Movie versions change the original all the time, but what’s interesting is the direction of the changes. Sondheim’s original was wonderful because of it’s unashamed melodrama, taken straight from 19th century equivalents of slasher flicks. It manages to make a twisted kind of sense, but does so by being completely over the top. My guess is that Burton thought we’d take the characters more seriously if they were less crazy, and his visuals agree: everything is portrayed in dark tones intented to assist in brooding. Compare Edward Scissorhands, where horror motifs are mixed with pastel suburbs. Edward Scissorhands was caricature, indeed was condemned as too much of a caricature by Roger Ebert, but Sweeney Todd is serious film.
Just like everything else, movies are dominated by trends. Look at the history of Batman movies: The Adam West TV show and film was dominated by the same technicolor 50′s leftovers that can be seen in early James Bond films. Tim Burton’s punky Gotham(s) looks a lot like the New York of the live action TMNT films or, for that matter, the alternate dimension of the Super Mario Bros. film. And the latest Batman movies look more like Burton’s Sweeney Todd than either looks like anything that came before.
What unites the recent action-adventure blockbusters–Casino Royale, Sweeney Todd, the record-breaking, award-winning Dark Knight, and most recently Watchmen–is they all want to be taken seriously. Casino Royale was supposed to restore the seriousness of the Bond franchise after the silliness of the Pierce Brosnan movies. Dark Knight was part of an effort to do the same for Batman undoing not just Joel Schumacher but also Adam West. Watchmen is based on a comic book that fans have always believed was great literature.
It’s a strange a strange trend, because, among other things, the gloriously serious past that these movies are supposed to restore is a mythical one. Has anyone involved in praising the new Batman movies read the original comics? There, Batman is a guy in a colorful costume who’s just inexplicably good at punching out crooks. In one comic, he lets some mobsters go just so Robin can beat them up again, and teach the reader the moral lesson that criminals are losers. Stealth is mentioned in the narration caption of one panel, but how stealth could be possible with a bright blue cape and cowl is not explained. Even into the 80′s, we get such nonsense as Batman breaking into one of Penguin’s factories, discovering he cannot get the Penguin on anything but a minor parole violation, and then standing in front of officials in broad daylight so that one of them can suggest he’s a looney vigilante (though no one does anything about that).
It wasn’t until Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) that anyone tried to seriously use ideas like Batman having to rely on stealth and psychology to do any good, or Batman being a wanted vigilante. But even Miller thought his comic wouldn’t be complete without a giant penny in the Batcave.
The early James Bond movies are better known, and our collective ability to forget them less explicable. The first three films treated us to the classic villains Dr. No (he’s a really negative guy!), Auric Goldfinger (obsessed with gold), and Pussy Galore (if you don’t get it, you’re too young to know). If you don’t watch movies this old, did you at least see Austin Powers make fun of them?
Finally, while Watchmen was part of a turn towards the more serious, it didn’t claim everything was to be taken seriously. Only the God-like Dr. Manhattan had real superpowers, Ozymandias is borderline, any rest of the costumed heros are at best high-performing humans who must face their inability to affect the world very much. Zach Snyder’s film couldn’t tolerate this, and gave all the heroes unexplained brick-breaking strength, so as to better justify their existence. In the run-up to the film’s release, Snyder also said he worried “audiences might not appreciate the naiveté of the original costumes,” so they would be given a look “modern in terms of the superhero aesthetic.” In particular, on Nite Owl, Snyder said:
we’re trying to make him look a little scarier. I think there’s a line in the graphic novel where it says the thugs are afraid of the outfit and I want to make that feel real because when you see him, he’s not exactly the scariest guy in the world.
Apparently, Snyder missed the line in the comic where Nite Owl confess that his gear is “camp or kitsch.”
When the movies show awareness for their roots, they follow strict rules for how to show it: (1) reference the silliness of past material in a way that’s almost like a joke, but (2) won’t get too large of a laugh and (3) mainly impresses the audience with how much more serious your version is. Thus, Casino Royale has jokes about silly character names, but the delivery is deadpan. Dark Knight has the Joker imagine a future cycle of escape and recapture, a probable reference to his comic-book ability to escape as the plot requires, but the presentation leaves out any hint of anything funny. Even the X-Men movie had a yellow-tights joke, but it’s just another way for the characters to let you know they’re real men.
The new films, though, can also be oblivious to the ways the old silliness effects them. The sequel to Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, is basically Goldfinger for Environmentalists, where the bad guys try to monopolize water rather than gold and cover the dead bond girl in oil rather than gold. Oh, and at the end, there’s also an exploding building!–which totally makes sense because the building is powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
The movies all have their nice touches: Casino Royale remembers that killing people is kind of a big deal, even for secret agents; Burton and Depp really are good at what they do; Dark Knight had a real performer in Ledger’s Joker and a nice touch in the copy-cat Batmen, and Watchmen really did have good source material. But the main devices for establishing a serious mood seem to be canned literary sophistication and 50% less illumination.
There’s been a trend of using “_______porn” to refer to genres which, like porn, use crude tactics to excite one feeling as strongly as possible. “Gunporn,” for example, uses guys blasting off big guns to stimulate a thrill of machismo. It’s a useful way of thinking of a large slice of our culture, and has become so popular that I once heard it suggested that we need a new word, “sexporn,” to mean what the word “porn” used to mean.
In that spirit, I propose labeling as “seriousporn” anything that uses simple, crude cinematic tricks to generate feelings of moral and literary sophistication. Nowadays there’s quite a market for it: we want to feel sophisticated, and we’ve discovered the feeling needn’t come from a sophisticated source. Conventional wisdom would blame the trend on September 11th, but September 11th was just an excuse. The terrorist attacks killed less than a tenth of the number killed in car accidents in that year. The people who used the attacks to proclaim the death of postmodernism were people who were already sick of it. It may be, on the contrary, that the lack of any problem as serious as the Great Depression or WWII has driven us to escape into fictional worlds where every action has moral gravitas.
A weird but enticing feature of The Dark Knight was the tag line, taken from a very minor scene: “Why so serious?” That was the line that went up on the movie posters, and was featured prominently in a trailer, paired with the Joker calling Batman “just a freak.” Did the filmmakers recognize that taking Batman so seriously was weird? If so, they still wanted audiences to appreciate the irony rather than laugh.
But anyway: Hey Daniel Craig, why so serious? Burton and Depp, why so serious? Why so serious, Christopher Nolen? Why so serious, Zack Snyder? Why so serious?