The real reason for Warner/DC’s “no jokes” policy

First, I might as well get this out of the way, since I still get confused comments about this: Yes, I like Man of Steel significantly less than I did when I wrote my initial review last year. Honestly, I don’t think I ever truly liked it. I just so very badly wanted to. I clung to the elements that worked and told myself those niggling doubts in the back of my head didn’t matter. I wanted so much to like Man of Steel, had myself so on edge, torn between excitement and dread, and so turned around that in my zeal to be a “professional” critic and judge whether or not the film was “objectively” good, I managed to overlook the most important factor of all while watching it:

I wasn’t having fun.

After all, if you’re not having fun watching a damn superhero movie, what’s the point? Sure, comics can have different goals than pulp entertainment. They can be dramatic, or dark and depressing, or spiritual, or psychedelic, or whatever the imagination can conceive, just like any art form. But this isn’t Watchmen. This isn’t The Invisibles or Maus. This is Superman. Ground zero for the comic book superhero. And if you’re not having fun watching Superman, why are you watching to begin with?

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And that was ultimately what killed Man of Steel for me. Not it being a bad movie (though it was very much that, failing to do a good job of being what it wanted to be, much less what I wanted it to be), but rather utterly joyless and morose. Even more so than the Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel was completely devoid of levity. And after so much anticipation, and so much promise, this was completely soul-crushing for me. Superman means something to me, and always has. This is a character I draw hope and inspiration from, a character who’s helped get me through my darkest days. And to see him drained of all that optimism and joy… I honestly think it broke something in me.

Ever since, I’ve been a more cynical person when it comes to movies. I find it much harder to get excited for anything movie-related anymore. Every time a new movie is announced that sounds like something I might like, I react with suspicion or apathy. The world of cinema post-Man of Steel just seems like a far bleaker place to me.

That may sound melodramatic, and it probably is. But as if to assure me I’m justified in feeling this way, along comes rumors that Warner Brothers has instituted an already infamous “no jokes policy” for all future DC movies.

Everybody together now…

The real reason for Warner/DC's "no jokes" policy
The real reason for Warner/DC's "no jokes" policy
The real reason for Warner/DC's "no jokes" policy

I honestly can barely find the words right now. I feel crushed by the very idea of what lies ahead. I’m still feeling drained from Man of Steel, and the thought that there are more movies coming just like it, each just as depressing as the last… I just want it to stop. I don’t want to live in a world where this is what Superman is now. Where this is what Wonder Woman, what the whole Justice League is. I’d rather never see them onscreen again than have to sit through another movie like Man of Steel.

But I’ll try to compose myself long enough to say something of substance about this. Which is difficult, because as it is, it actually doesn’t seem to tell us all that much. For instance, exactly how literal a mandate is this? Are they actually saying that no kind of humor at all will be permitted in their films? Is any line of dialogue that resembles a joke to be purged from the scripts? Are actors to be forbidden from smiling during their performances? Likely not. After all, even Man of Steel had one or two jokes… I think. Let’s see, there was the bit where he smashes that guy’s truck, I guess. That was sort of a joke. Then there was the bit where that girl said Superman was hot. I think that was meant to be funny… for some reason. And I think Superman smiled once while flying… or maybe that was just a grimace. Ooh, that bit about his “S” we all remember from the trailer! That was a joke, right? Or was that just awkward setup? I really can’t remember; I was busy having my inner child stomped into submission at the time.

But regardless, surely they don’t mean literally no jokes at all. That would be ludicrous. Almost no movie in the history of cinema can claim to be completely devoid of any kind of humor. Hell, even The Act of Killing had humor in it, and that was the most depressing movie of last year (which I’ll remind you is a year that also gave us 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station).

But even if Warners isn’t being completely literal, what do they think actively discouraging humor will accomplish? Who is this meant to appeal to, exactly? Robots? Vulcans? Oscar the Grouch? Is there a single demographic anywhere in the world that does not like humor at all in their movies? Are there actually people who walk into a film saying, “This movie better not make me laugh, not once”?

It’s weird, because from an outsider’s perspective, it feels like Warner Brothers, a company that’s been making films since 1923, has somehow forgotten how movies work. Humor is one of the basic tools of not just movies, but all forms of storytelling. It provides levity, which in turn provides relief from conflict and tension. Without it, the narrative becomes oppressively dull. Drama and tragedy don’t work when there’s no lighter counterpoint to balance them out. Sadness and anger have no meaning when they’re your character’s default state of being. And absolute stone-faced seriousness at all times makes characters cold and impenetrable, which in turn makes it very difficult for audiences to feel engaged.

The real reason for Warner/DC's "no jokes" policy

Why? Why do this? What is to be gained, exactly? Is there some sort of fear that allowing Batman to ever again crack a smile is to risk another Batman & Robin, from which they must forever run in the opposite direction? Why mandate such dour and joyless tones for superhero movies? Why craft a Superman who spreads mass destruction instead of hope? Who sulks and broods instead of comforts and inspires? Who lives in a world of the worst possible tragedies that somehow have no consequences at all? Why does WB want to ban fun?

And then it hit me: Because Superman is Donald Rumsfeld now.

It came to me while reading about some of the plot details of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, specifically in regards to how Superman’s mass-murdering punch up will be viewed by the general public. What do we know? Apparently, they’ve built a statue of Superman. So it would seem the people of Metropolis aren’t terribly upset that he leveled their city and killed most of them. We even know that a crippled Jimmy Olsen may enter the story as a victim of Superman’s rampage, whose role is apparently to be totally cool with his horrific injuries. We’re told he still loves Superman, despite the fact that he, you know, maimed him for life. Because he saved the world, it’s all good.

And suddenly it all becomes clear. This is Christopher Nolan’s right-wing politics working their way into Superman the way they worked their way into Batman. This is turning Superman into a metaphor for U.S. actions in Iraq, by having him destroy an entire city full of innocents to kill one guy, and trying to make us feel like it was completely justified. It doesn’t matter who gets hurt along the way, as long as we get the bad guy. This is basically the misguided U.S. fantasy of the rest of the world loving us for what we’ve done in the Middle East. The filmmakers even give Superman a whole arc about rejecting and then violently destroying the remnants of his alien heritage, and then they throw in that “I’m as American as it gets” scene just to solidify him as America personified.

Regardless of your personal politics, we should all be able to agree on one thing: Superman should never say “It was for the greater good.” The whole point of Superman is he never has to say “It was for the greater good.” He’s so powerful that he always finds a way to save everyone. That’s the fantasy of Superman: The idea of someone who can fix everything, someone who’s incorruptible and can make everything okay.

Superman is not a character for a “post-9/11 world”, where everything has to be dark and morally ambiguous, with of lots of political undertones. That’s why Man of Steel didn’t work, why Dawn of Justice won’t work, and why this “no jokes” policy is a bad idea. They’re trying to force Superman into a mold that wasn’t made for him. And in order for him to fit into it, he has to be stripped of everything that makes him Superman: Hope, optimism… and fun.

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