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Gritty vs. Silly: Trends in Genre Film and TV

I finally saw The Avengers yesterday, so good on them for re-releasing it to theaters for Labor Day and getting my money after all. I have also, through the insidious influence of Pinterest, decided to love and devote myself to a new sci-fi franchise in the form of Doctor Who. While discussing these new pop culture acquisitions with my friends, I realized that our geek franchises in recent years have taken a notable turn for the dark, the gritty, and the “realistic,” creating an interesting duality in the genre.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is different from the Batman movies it followed because it is decidedly not silly. (Seriously, Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Ice Man?) While Jack Nicholson’s Joker was gonzo and ridiculous, Heath Ledger’s was menacing and disturbed. Nolan’s Gotham could be any real city, overrun with corruption and subject to the whims of a few tech-savvy, physically imposing maniacs (Bruce Wayne included). HOWEVER, the world inhabited by The Avengers could, by conventional notions, definitely not exist. There may really be dazzling advances in weaponry and spy-tactics, and suits made to look like giant bats, but there are not Norse gods, cryogenically frozen WW2 vets, invading space-armies, and certainly no Hulks.

Of course realism isn’t the only difference, and certainly isn’t of any real import when discussing fantasies. Anyone with their eyes open and their ears clean can also observe that Dark Knight Rises is so dark it’s practically in black and white, but The Avengers is bright and colorful (and delightfully reminiscent of a comic book itself.) Where Rises invites the viewer to look harder through the shadows, Avengers assaults the eye with pops of color.  While Batman dresses in sleek camouflaging (and slimming) black, each Avenger has his own distinct look: the shining red and gold of Iron Man’s suit, the almost jingoistic red, white, and blue of Captain America’s body condom, and the sickly green of Hulk’s very skin.  (Fine, Hawkeye and Black Widow wear black, but they are obviously Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland to the other characters’ Beyonce.)

Then of course, there is the matter of humor.  Surely, the Dark Knight trilogy had some jokes in it (though I’m hard-pressed to recount one.)  It is obvious, though, that The Avengers is more of an old-fashioned (or classic, depending how you look at it) comic book movie in the way it infuses humor into its story and dialogue.  It’s like, guys, there’s a Hulk in the movie, don’t take it all so seriously.  There’s a winking to the audience, a self-effacement in the humor that endears the audience to the movie instantly.  And really, could a movie like that ever possibly succeed without laughing at itself?  Guys – THERE WAS A FLYING FORTRESS.  And that wasn’t even the aliens!

The same goes for the difference between the two most recent additions to my geek oeuvre: Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire, for the real geeks) and Doctor Who.  I love both, although I have fully devoured all available Thrones canon and have only just begun with the Doctor; but the two could not be more different in tone.  Game of Thrones is the Dark Knight of television: it is dark, gritty, and it could really happen!  Okay, maybe there aren’t dragons… but even in the story, people believe there aren’t dragons!  And in essence, that story is about human nature and political and personal motivations intertwining.  Doctor Who is about a 900-year-old time traveler whose spaceship looks like a telephone box and who encounters aliens and monsters of every conceivable sort on the daily.  It is slightly less “realistic” in the traditional sense.

As for the visuals, same story.  Game of Thrones rails against the stereotype of the ridiculously outlandish fantasy story.  Everything looks lived-in and utilitarian and historic.  All is epic; little is laughable.  Even the damn dragons look legitimate!  For its part, Doctor Who had me thrown at first, because it was unabashedly low-budget, with fairly hilarious special effects and alien costumes.  What I mean is, in the first episode a bunch of mannequins came to life and started Frankenstein-marching around trying to kill people, and one of their arms got torn off and kept fighting.  It’s ridiculous!  But Doctor Who, like Avengers, revels in the ridiculous!  Why does it have to be a bad thing?  Doctor Who is kitschy and schlocky and delightful.  While Thrones uses breathtaking visuals to enhance the story, Who lets its story transcend lackluster effects: both make great storytelling out of what they have.

And comedy?  Well, Game of Thrones certainly has a better sense of humor than Dark Knight Rises, but it often jokes in the same grim way as that movie.  They’re the kind of jokes you have to make to break the unbearable tension of fantastic circumstances.  Doctor Who jokes early and often.  The dialogue is quick and sharp and the eponymous Doctor is constantly poking fun at the heightened situations they find themselves in.

What I’m saying here is that while I love grit and these intense dramas that have come to define “good film” and “good television”, I welcome and enjoy the wave of indulgently nonsensical, truly fantastical genre stories.  They’re like the release of hysterical laughter after a bout of delicious wallowing, and both deserve their due.

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