Why so serious?

While suffering recently through Termination Salvation, I got thinking about how when I was growing up there were two kinds of movie. Movies for adults and movies which were, you know…for kids. But recently a middle ground seems to have opened up, to be filled by what usually turn out to be the most expensive and heavily hyped movies around. At a guess I’d say that these films are aimed primarily at teenage boys, but they seem to want to have their cake and eat it. They’re based on source material which was obviously originally aimed at children (superhero comics, robot toys, theme park rides), but they want to be all grown-up and dark too.

Yet the “darkness” is often no more than window dressing. For example Terminator Salvation has a washed-out, grainy, Saving Private Ryan look to it and a portentious voice-over which claims to have something to say about what it means to be human, but at the end of the day it’s just a collection of explosions and crashing helicopters and men scowling and growling. The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie seemed to forget that it needed to be a) funny and b) exciting, and pootled about chasing random plot threads and secondary characters through the gloom and rain, as if that made it darker and more interesting than the simple romp of the first episode.

I remember someone asking once on a Brussels expats online forum where they could take their child to see Superman Returns in English. I replied with the details, but then cautioned that despite appearances this in fact was not really a suitable film for a small boy. Not that he’d find anything upsetting in it, but more likely that he’d be bored to tears. During two and a half hours our hero moons about stalking his ex-girlfriend, brooding over his place in the world and what people think of him and generally spending more time on existential angst than villain chasing. The very occasional action scenes are repetitive and unimaginative, leading one reviewer to rename the film Superman Lifts Things.

This is what happens when geeks grow up to become writers and directors and want to revisit their childhood obssessions but give them weight and respectability by taking them oh so seriously. This can be done, but only if you put some effort into making the content dark and interesting, and not just the design and lighting. This is what The Dark Knight got right. And yet the merchandising departments seem to be on a different page from the actual filmmakers. While the movie itself is all doom and violence and nihilism, in the shops the related products are toys and clothing aimed squarely at pre-teens. You’ve seen the long, gory, self-important, depressing movie, now buy the lunchbox!

 Can we have some summer blockbusters next year that are actually fun, please? Otherwise, where will it all end?