There seems to have been a tonal shift in our movies over the past decade. While it’s not so obvious in individual movies, the shift is apparent when you look at franchises like Batman, Spider-Man, and James Bond. Things have gotten darker. And I’m not just talking about the cinematography. They’ve moved toward a darker, less fantastical tone. But is that a good thing?
Tone is the lens through which you present the world and characters to the audience. It’s not only important to choose a tone but to remain faithful to it throughout the course of the movie.
When people recommend a movie they often compare it to another movie with a similar tone. Ocean’s 11 and The Score might both be heist movies but they have very different tones. The Godfather and Goodfellas would both fall into the same genre but their tones are very different.
Ups and downs
Two franchises come to mind when I discuss a change in tone: Indiana Jones and Batman.
Raiders of the Lost Arch had a fun adventurous tone. We laughed, gasped in excitement, cringed at the snakes and ghosts, but ultimately had a fun time. Then came the Temple of Doom. It still had some fun scenes but ripping the still-beating hearts out of peoples’ chests was more than a few shades darker. The Last Crusade went in the opposite direction. It was all about light hearted fun. And the comedy, oh she be a flowin’. Too much for some peoples’ tastes. Three movies, three somewhat differing tones. (never mind the Crystal Skull. never happened)
Batman had much more dramatic tonal shift. Unlike Indiana Jones, which employed the same actor, director, and producer, Batman was like a leaf in the wind; getting tossed between different creative teams and actors every couple years. In the 60’s Batman TV show the character wasn’t much more than comedy. Then Tim Burton turned him into a much darker, Frank Miller-esque vigilante. But after only two movies some genius gave the keys to the franchise to Joel Schumacher. Maybe it made sense. You’d have thought the Falling Down guy could make a decent Batman movie. But next thing you know we’ve got nipples on the bat-suit. It was another big change in tone for the franchise. One that seem to be dooming it. Then Christopher Nolan came on board. He had his own vision of Batman. A darker more realistic one. Darker than even Señor Scissorhands himself.
The Not So Amazing
Nolan went for a more realistic and gritty version of the Bat. One that made a butt-ton of money and earned a couple equally as moody sequels. It was a success. And as such it was bound to be emulated.
I was surprised to see a reboot of Spider-Man so soon. Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies were spot on. (never mind the third one. never happened)
The Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t just more of the same. Gone was the light hearted levity. This Spider-Man had a much darker and realistic tone. It felt like they were trying to make Spider-Man more like Batman. Peter Parker was angry and sulking damn near the entire movie. There was no whimsy. No humor. No fun.
The tone was all wrong.
First off, the comic book version of Peter Parker is full of quips. He’s funny. The movie was not.
Second, his world is a little silly. Let recap. The boy gets bitten by a radioactive spider, doesn’t get AIDS or anything, in fact gets superhuman powers, no side affects (silky ass), and then fights a giant lizard man. You know, that old cliché.
Christopher Nolan refused to consider the Penguin as a character for his trilogy. Rightly so. The character has penguin henchmen. He uses umbrellas as weapons. The Batman world that includes the Penguin is a different world than Nolan’s. The reason why: tone.
The easiest way to figure out the tone of your superhero movie is to look at the villain. If your villain has grown extra arms and cyborg nuts and shoots radioactive sweat from his crevices, you do not have a realistic movie. Go hog wild. If your villain is a really cunning kungfu master with a penchant for assault rifles, you’re living in the real world and are bound to certain limitations before we as an audience throw our hands up and go, “Cheeseburger throwing star? Bullshit!”.
Another example of shifting tone in a franchise is James Bond. For years a James Bond movie consisted of fun, completely unrealistic adventure. He had a wisecrack for every moment. Slept with every woman. Shot a pen gun. Fought a midget. Windsurfed a tidal wave. Bond movies used to be unrealistic fun. Full of gadgets and delight.
Once again Hollywood is affected its own success. The Bond franchise was underwhelming by 2002. Then The Bourne Identity showed a darker, more realistic kind of spy. The next time we saw Bond he was an unstoppable badass. He went from wisecracking charmer to battering ram. Quite frankly, cool as the new bond was, he didn’t seem like Bond at all. You could have called him Tad Mickfitts and no one would have noticed. (other names: Knuckle Belvedere, Zim Posthumous, Reggie Delequiox, Justin Kleidsdale, Greg Beaver)
They’ve done a pretty good job updating Bond. Gone are the silly gadgetry. The stunts are more realistic. But in doing so they’ve filtered out some of that special recipe that made James Bond who he is. I get the need to update the character to keep with audiences, but I feel a little sad that James Bond as we knew him will never be again.
However that’s not my problem with Bond’s tone.
My problem is when they try to mix the tone of the old Bond with the new one. Skyfall was one the better Bond movies I can recall. But there were a few moments that didn’t quite jive. In the opening sequence Bond is mercilessly pursuing someone with top secret information. He gets shot in the shoulder but he refuses to give up. He lunges onto a train as it’s being ripped apart and then… takes a second to adjust his cuffs?
Or better yet, dude shows up on the boat of a woman he just met. He creeps up behind her all naked and British while she’s in the shower. My wife and I literally laughed out loud in the theatre when we saw this. Uh, hi, Daniel. Pass the soap and please don’t rape me.
It’s easy to just say, well it’s a Bond movie. Fair enough. If I had seen this scene on its own it might not have felt out of place. But the movie was already in motion. The tone had was setup inside of two minutes. Now I expectations as a viewer.
I’ll even give you the cuff adjustment gag. Everybody gets one. But the others, and there were a few more, didn’t fit. Instead it seemed like—we interrupt this Bourne movie to bring you a Bond moment, now back to the movie.
Dark versus realistic
Until now I’ve qualified dark and realistic as a tandem because quite often that seems to be the case. Can it simply be realistic? Absolutely. Can it be dark without being realistic? Of course. Perhaps the new Superman movie coming is a good example of that.
I’ve never been a fan of Superman. I’ve always considered him to be a silly overpowered boyscout. I wasn’t shocked when Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was about as exciting as my used bath water. I just chalked it up to a poor character. I mean, knowing Superman well enough, I thought his tone was pretty spot on. Which is why I was shocked when I saw the trailer for Zack Snyder’s considerably darker version. My brain sparked to life and said, “This ain’t your daddy’s Superman”. It’s only a trailer. But man, what a trailer.
Tim Burton’s two Batman movies were also dark but completely unrealistic. (Penguin henchmen)
One tone to rule them all
My concern is the apparent trend to make all things dark and realistic. Generally I like movies that are gritty and realistic. But I don’t want them all that way. And fantasy is the perfect place to still keep some whimsy and fun. We’ll have to wait and see if this trend continues, or if a new group of filmmakers take franchises in a completely different direction.
Tone should always be dictated by the character and the world they inhabit.
Know your characters. Know your world. Know your tone.
Last thing I’ll say regarding tone concerns my old pal Daredevil. Basically the blind Marvel equivalent of Batman. What a wasted opportunity that was. They took the soft approach to a hardened crime drama and ended up with a silly fluff piece where we all wished we were blind.
I recently found out that Joe Carnahan was attached to reboot Daredevil. He had a sizzle reel put together to show the tone of the new Daredevil movie he would direct; edited from existing movie clips, news footage, and comic books. Sadly, I hear it’s fallen apart, but his sizzle reel is on the web. You can tell by watching it that he clearly understood the tone the movie should have taken. Here’s a guy who gets it.