So far we have looked at why characters and plot are probably the primary elements to consider when reviewing a movie. What’s next? Probably, the TONE of the film.
“Tone” can be defined as the character or attitude of the movie as expressed in characterisation and/or the plot.
In general terms, the tone of a movie can be described in a variety of ways – for instance, it may be heavy-handed and serious, light-hearted and comedic, dark and terrifying, childlike and innocent and so on.
Most movies would not be monotone in this respect but usually there would be one dominant tone with a pinch of contrasting tones.
For example, humour is often injected into a serious film to ‘lighten’ the tone. This tactic also features in horror movies to disarm the tension the audience might be feeling.
However, a right balance of tone is the function of good and effective writing. In this respect, too much humour in the wrong places might have an off-putting effect and compromise the emotional impact of a particular plot sequence.
This problem has always plagued superhero movies, like the Batman movies of the 80s/90s. Tim Burton’s groundbreaking Batman movie (1989) borrowed riffs from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns – a dark and gritty tome.
The film’s mega-success allowed Burton free rein to deliver a sequel – Batman Returns, which many critics found too dark and violent for their taste.
Just watch the clip below, where the hideous Penguin details his plan to kidnap and murder children (!) – there’s nothing light-hearted about this scene despite its child-like veneer.
The studio hated the movie and engaged Joel Schumacher to direct the next two movies in the series viz. Batman Forever & Batman and Robin.
The tone of the movies went from dark to campy, resulting in Schumacher becoming a much maligned figure amongst Bat-fans.
Take the opening sequence as Batman is about to begin his crime-fighting duties, the swell of Wagerian strings is under-cut by a rather tone-deaf exchange between Alfred and the Caped Crusader.
The critical response to these movies left the franchise in disarray and it took almost a decade before Christopher Nolan – with Batman Begins – brought the character in line once again with Frank Miller’s defining vision.
That’s not to say that humour was absent from Nolan’s stellar Dark Knight trilogy but not in the form or manner that was seen in Schumacher’s films.
This is the mark of excellent writing and the tone of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is consistent throughout within the context of Batman’s character and the various plot lines.
Lately, the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and specifically, the use of humour to offset the po-faced seriousness of superhero comics – the singular contribution of writer Stan Lee to Marvel Comics – the wise-crackin’ Spider-Man being the classic example, has prompted many scriptwriters to follow suit with often disastrous results.
Whereas the sleeper hit Guardians of the Galaxy blended a comedic tone to good effect and bringing a certain sense of ‘realism’ into a story filled with fantastical elements, Thor : Ragnarok – in a bid to replicate GOTG’s appeal threw the baby out with the bath power, presenting us with a Thor movie that was incongruous with what had gone before, replacing epic gravitas with slapstick humour.
Take for example, the scene where Thor is explaining to Korg about his special relationship with his hammer. The entire conversation is an excuse for a farce, as Korg misunderstands everything Thor is saying. Which would be fine if this was a one-off but this kind of comedy runs throughout the entire movie.
The end result is that nobody can take the movie seriously – it is impossible to be invested in the characters, there are no stakes involved – even though Thor loses an eye and Asgard is destroyed – the audience is not able to give a fuck as they think they are meant to laugh through all the horrible things happening to the characters.
Once this happens, the movie loses all weight as a story. Contrast this to GOTG where the opposite was true, as the humour-drama balance was finely tuned by director James Gunn. Despite the brilliance of his previous films, Ragnarok director Taika Waititi failed to achieve the same balance.
The same unbalanced tone can be found on The Last Jedi, which has also been infected by the Stan Lee virus of tone-deaf humour.
Poe Dameron trolling General Hux, Luke Skywalker throwing the light sabre down a cliff, the milking of the alien tit creature and so on, once again had the same effect – we did not care about the characters or the plot, because we were not sure whether the whole thing was just a joke and not to be taken seriously.
It’s definitely a thin line between comedy used well to serve a dramatic story and comedy used for its own sake, but a film’s success in finding the best balance will determine whether the right tone for a movie has been achieved.
… still there’s more …